Bouncing Romney tries to woo crowds with frozen grin


FROM MY vantage point atop a metal box on the factory floor, Mitt Romney appears to bob up and down, as if riding a pogo stick.

The Republican presidential hopeful wears his campaign uniform of blue jeans and a white shirt. His face is a frozen grin as he bounces through the crowd shaking hands, assembly-line fashion.

Romney looks amazingly fit for a man in his mid-60s, perhaps a testimony to the clean living espoused by his Mormon faith. His lips have never touched a drop of alcohol; not even coffee or tea. Will they stop serving wine at White House state dinners if he wins, a Des Moines businesswoman wonders.

“Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” the crowd shouts.

“Gosh, you are so kind to be here,” he replies.

Folksiness does not come easily to the former governor of Massachusetts. “He always looks like he’s giving a PowerPoint presentation, like he’s running for chief executive officer of America,” the businesswoman says.

An attractive, tightly knit family is a must for a Republican candidate, especially after pizza mogul Herman Cain’s campaign collapsed amid allegations of sexual misconduct, and Newt Gingrich’s serial infidelities were again dredged up.

Jon Huntsman, the other Mormon candidate, who skipped the Iowa caucuses, has seven children. So does Rick Santorum, the socially conservative Christian candidate.

Michele Bachmann, another favourite with evangelicals, has five biological children and raised 23 others.

Four out of five of the Romney sons, aged 31 to 41, were on hand in a T-shirt factory in a Des Moines suburb. All share their father’s tall, aristocratic looks.

The introductions sounded like a fertility contest. “This is Tagg, our first son, father of four,” Romney begins, going on to Matt, “number two, father of four”, and Josh, “number three, father of five”. We were then introduced to the “baby”, Craig. An attractive blonde woman stands up, whom Romney jokingly introduces as his youngest, Ann.

The Romneys met in grade school, Mitt recounts. When he was 16, he walked Ann home from a party. “We’ve been going steady ever since.”

Gingrich famously divorced two wives who fell ill. Romney stood by his wife of 42 years when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and moved the family to California because the climate was better for her.

“We need all your energy, all your passion, to make sure this is the next president of the United States,” Ann Romney starts.

When she was raising their five sons, while Mitt was amassing his $250 million (€191 million) fortune at Bain Capital, he used to phone her to say, ‘Ann, your job is more important than mine’, she says. “And he was right. His job will come and go. This would be forever. It’s been a wonderful 42 years of marriage.”

“Thank you, sweetheart,” Romney says, before switching into attack mode against Barack Obama. He’d been watching the president’s campaign appearances in Iowa four years ago and was struck by “the gap between what he promised and what happened”.

Romney faults Obama for “failing to put in place crippling sanctions against Iran, for failing to support the militants in the streets of Tehran”.

Despite the nearly $1 trillion stimulus plan, unemployment has not dipped below 8 per cent. In human terms, Romney says, that means 25 million jobless Americans.

The list of grievances continues: Obama borrowed three times more than George W Bush every year. “He went on the Today Show and said, ‘If I can’t turn this economy around in three years, I’m a one-term president.’ Well, I’m here to collect.”

The crowd cheers for the first time.

Romney quotes the head of Coca-Cola, saying the business environment is more positive in China than the US. He’d clamp down on China.

“They’ve been cheating. They’ve been stealing our designs and our intellectual property.”

His first question before funding a programme would be: “Is this programme so critical that you would borrow from China to pay for it?”

Romney promises on his first day as president to “get rid of Obamacare”, the healthcare reform Bill signed in March 2010.

The issue is a sore point with voters, because Obama’s plan is modelled on Romney’s healthcare plan in Massachusetts. Gingrich, the embittered erstwhile challenger to Romney, has vowed to make “Romneycare” an issue in New Hampshire next week.

A few hecklers from the Occupy movement and the Ron Paul campaign began to liven up matters. “Stop the war on the poor!” the protesters shout.

“Get a job!” someone screams back.

Romney supporters try to drown out the troublemakers with cries of “Mitt, Mitt, Mitt!”.

Romney adopts the frozen grin that is his default expression and surveys the crowds wedged in between the T-shirt looms and laser embossing machines.

“Hey guys,” he finally says. “Isn’t it great to live in a country where you can express your views?”

His campaign “is about two very different visions of America”. He wants a country based on merit. “I watch our president today and I don’t think he gets it,” he continues. “He wants to turn us into a European-style welfare state. He wants to create envy, to divide us.”

John Strong (70), an activist for veterans’ rights, carries a large homemade sign: “In Obama we trusted. Now our economy is busted,” it says.

Strong has taken sides in the long-running battle between the so-called social conservatives or “values voters” – evangelical Christians – and the mainstream Republican Party represented by Romney.

“Most of them are too far right to win a national election,” Strong says. “They’re obsessed with abortion and they’re kind of hateful when they talk about minorities. They say they are people of God, but sometimes they think of themselves as God.

“The religious right is now taking over the party here in Iowa. I hope Romney will take the party back from them.”

‘Three tickets out of iowa’ race to the White House is on

IOWA HAS been first in the nominating process since 1972 when Iowa Democrats changed the date to meet new rules intended to encourage participation. Jimmy Carter first drew attention to the caucuses in 1976 when he performed unexpectedly well and went on to take the White House.

The saying there are only “three tickets out of Iowa comes from the fact that since 1972 almost no candidate has won their party nomination without coming in third place or better in Iowa. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain took fourth.

On average only about 6 per cent of eligible voters participate in the Iowa caucuses, which bring them together for hours to cast ballots after a surrogate or volunteer from each campaign is given a chance to try to sway their vote. In 2008, that jumped to 16.1 per cent but was still much lower than the 53.6 per cent who voted in the New Hampshire primaries of direct balloting, according to George Mason University’s United States Elections Project.

Iowa has chosen Democratic candidates for the White House in five of the last six presidential elections. Registered Democrats number about 645,500 to 613,500 Republicans, and almost 718,000 voters were not with a party, according to December data from the Iowa secretary of state.

In an election focused on the economy, Iowa’s 6 per cent unemployment rate in October, compared to the national rate of 8.6 per cent, is among the lowest in the country.

The state’s Hispanic population almost doubled in the past decade to make up about 5 per cent of Iowans. About 91 per cent of the population was white in 2010, the last census shows. – (Reuters)