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Romney In The Home Stretch

Newton, Iowa

I just got out of a Romney event here in Newton--probably 100-150 people (and 25-30 press) crammed into a local diner. Romney's closing stump speech is pretty solid--and, as Time's Joe Klein put it, very "efficient." He manages to pack several themes into a lean, 15-20 minute affair. 

Not surprisingly, Romney was strongest talking about how his business career gives him the experience to bring change to Washington ("I've spent my life changing things, I know how change works."). During this riff he managed to work in a local Iowa connection (one of his first assignments as a management consultant was at a Marshalltown company called Fisher Controls) and even a little self-deprecating humor ("I'm happy as I go by Marshalltown to see Fisher Controls still there despite my work.")

The second thing Romney had going for him was that, for all the talk about his cynicism and flip-flopping, he seemed pretty authentic and believable when talking about his family--not a bad thing to sound authentic about in a GOP primary. He told the story of how his father came from nothing--never completed college, grandfather went bankrupt multiple times--to become president of American Motors and the three-term governor of Michigan. Even so, Romney said, his father once told him his proudest accomplishment was raising four children. "Now that I have five boys of my own--all married--and eleven grandkids--I know how he feels," Romney said. "The most important accomplishment in my life was my small part in raising those five boys." (One potential pitfall here: Romney talked about how his father was born in Mexico. If memory serves, his family had moved there to be part of a polygamist Mormon colony, which is, you know, a little creepy. But I doubt that would have rung a bell for many Newtonians.)   

Things I still don't buy about Romney: He continues to go on at some length about this Islamic caliphate the jihadis want to establish. I understand why he talks about this, it just doesn't sound like him. Another thing that doesn't sound like him: lots of talk about "big government" and "big brother." Again, I understand the rationale, I just don't see his heart in it. And it doesn't compute alongside his pragmatic problem-solver persona.

Final thing about the talk: Romney now closes with a pretty moving story about going to meet the casket of a fallen soldier when it arrived in the United States. As he was watching the casket get unloaded from the plane, Romney says, he looked up and noticed that a crowd had formed at the airport in Boston, and the people watching all had their hands over their hearts. It nicely illustrates Romney's point about how we're all one country (though I'm not sure it would completely stand up to a literal fact-check). But Romney's delivery is a little workman-like and it does make you wonder how it would sound in the hands of a real story-teller like Huckabee.  

A couple more quick thoughts: First, is it just me, or is interesting that two of the people out here with Romney are Jewish converts to evangelical Christianity? Former Missouri Senator Jim Talent introduces Romney at these events. Also in Romney's entourage is evangelical super-lawyer Jay Sekulow (whose connection with Romney I wrote about here; see picture below). Romney took care to point him out to the crowd. Maybe it makes sense that the evangelicals most receptive to a Mormon candidate weren't raised as evangelicals (if they had, they might have heard a lot about how Mormons are cult members.)

Second, Newton is a pretty blue-collar town--and a down-and-out one at that. The Maytag plant here was recently shuttered after decades of driving the local economy. People are still pretty raw over the development. (As I'm writing this, one middle-aged woman walks by and asks: "Was that Romney here? Where was he when they shut the Maytag plant down?) One elderly gentleman I talked to after Romney's remarks told me this is a pretty strong Democratic town, with a lot of support for Hillary. (He'd worked for Maytag for 40 years and was basing this on conversations he'd had with former colleagues.) If anything, you'd expect this to be Huckabee country, not Romney country. So it's interesting that they decided to come here. For what it's worth, Romney's local country chairwoman told me Huckabee is in fact pretty strong here, but she said a lot of people were now getting turned off by all the emphasis on his religion.

Finally, for the first time since I've been attending events in Iowa, this one featured an operative from a rival camp (the Huckabee campaign) working his way through the press corps to announce a press conference immediately afterward. This one would consist of a group of state legislators who'd be responding to Romney's "misleading attacks," the operative said. He was completely unembarrassed about saying this while Romney was speaking--he made almost no effort to even whisper. Anyway, here he is admiring his handiwork:

Welcome to the final week before the caucuses.

--Noam Scheiber