And his overflow crowd of more than 400 at a Greenville banquet hall ate it up, reacting wildly throughout.
Romney is not a candidate used to being interrupted by cheers, but on this night he was.
“We need Mitt! We need Mitt! We need Mitt!” they chanted.
“You know what?” he replied. “You’re gonna get me.”
“You guys in Greenville,” Romney added, “this is the best audience I’ve been to in a long time.”
It is difficult to recall a campaign event this past year where the former Massachusetts governor has made such an electric connection with his audience or where the crowd has been as pumped up as here. To be sure, Romney had some reinforcements in the form of two of the Republican Party’s star governors — South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and Virginia’s Robert McDonnell — who introduced him, as well as Romney’s wife, Ann. McDonnell recognized from the stage dozens of people in the crowd who had come from Virginia.
Still, it was Romney whom voters in the crowd said they marveled at. The man in person, some said in interviews after the rally, was nothing like the stiff, scripted and humorless politician they have come to know through 16 candidates’ debates.
“He was much more animated and humorous and much, much more likeable than what I’ve seen on TV. I came in undecided. We came down to see if he’d give us anything more than he had, and he did. I’m going to vote for him now,” said Janet Johnson, 70, who drove with her husband more than an hour from her home in Salem to help decide whether to vote for him or former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
This week, Romney bore witness to the resurgence of Gingrich, who shot up in the polls after two strong debate performances and probably dashed any hopes Romney had of locking up the nomination in South Carolina. Romney’s performance Friday night may have came too late — and before too small an audience — to make up for the double-digit lead he has squandered here.
But the Greenville rally illustrated how Romney’s competitive instincts can kick in, and it may signal a shift in his campaign style — from tentative to scrappy. The front-runner may lose to Gingrich here on Saturday. If he does, the race is on. And if Friday night was any indication, Romney is ready to fight for it.
“I happen to believe that I’m the only guy in this race who can beat Barack Obama,” Romney told the Greenville crowd, drawing loud applause. It’s a judgment about electability sometimes put forth by his surrogates, but rarely until now by Romney himself.