On the Internet, it led a man with a criminal past to fake his name and organize people for a candidate he called “a better man than I’ll ever be.”
And here, in a suburb near Tampa, it caused a 42-year-old business executive to spend her Wednesday nights as a volunteer DJ, talking up Romney on low-budget Internet radio. Romney Radio.
“He’s a fixer of things. He likes things to be right,” Dixie Cannon said into the microphone one night last week. She struggled to explain how strongly she felt. “I use the term ‘love’ as something that comes from my heart. . . . I fell in love with Mitt Romney.”
These are the sasquatches of American politics: rumored, hoped-for, so elusive that they can seem imaginary.
They are Mitt Romney’s superfans.
To be clear: These “Romniacs” are not Wall Street bigwigs or paid campaign operatives. Many of them, but not all, are Mormons like Romney. What unites them is a powerful — and unusual — excitement for a candidate who struggles to excite anybody else.
The good news for Romney is that they exist, these people who call him a “geek,” and “Ward Cleaver,” and love him deeply for it.
The bad news is that there doesn’t appear to be that many of them — a small, eclectic scattering in a nation with 137 million registered voters.
“We are in the thousands,” said Judi Rustin, 61, the poet in Arizona. “And we all bleed red Romney blood.”
So far, Romney has done something remarkable in this campaign: He has managed to win without winning. Despite claiming 16 states and a sizable lead in the race for GOP delegates, the candidate has not been able to build the kind of fervor that could sweep his opponents away. In a recent poll that asked for a one-word reaction to Romney, the most common answer was “no.”
Finding a Romniac, then, takes some doing.
The campaign has looked for them, selling official “Mitt Romney Super Fan” T-shirts for $30 apiece. At last count, it had sold 346. Rick Santorum, by contrast, has sold 3,000 of his $100 souvenir sweater vests.
And, online, Romney fanatics can have trouble even finding one another.
“Is anyone out there?” a user named Bob Riley wrote at Romniac.com in early March. A site administrator welcomed him. And then . . . nothing. For three weeks and two days, no other Romniacs answered his query.
But superfans are out there — recognizable, in the wild, by their entirely un-Romney-like levels of nervous excitement.
“I’m just so fired up, I can’t even sleep at night,” said Joe McCutchen, 72, a former carpet mill owner who writes a conservative newsletter in Ellijay, Ga.
McCutchen fell for Romney because Romney himself told him he would crack down on pork-barrel spending when they met six years ago in Sea Island, Ga.
To show his devotion, McCutchen submitted to mockery from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” which came to film him at his house. But he’s always afraid somebody else is doing more, so when he meets other die-hard supporters, he subjects them to a little Romney-off.
“Do you wear stickers? ‘No.’ Do you answer the phone ‘Romney for president’? ‘No,’ ” McCutchen said. He does both, wearing a sticker on his lapel every day. So he always wins. “I’ve been told I’m his number-one supporter in the country.”
But even McCutchen has never named a child after Romney.
That happened in Orem, Utah, in 2008, while Romney was a contender in the previous GOP primary race. Jennifer Nielsen and her husband had joked that if their child arrived on Presidents’ Day they would name him after the candidate, whom they admired for his business experience.
He did. So they did.
“Little Mitt” is now 4, learning the ups and downs of his name: It’s cool that there’s a famous man on TV called “Mitt.” It’s bad that people often think his name is “Mitch.” Even in Utah, “they don’t think anybody would name their kid Mitt,” his mother said.
So, is Little Mitt’s personality anything like the politician’s?
“Not really,” said Nielsen, 27. “He’s very emotional. He’s one of those. You know, cries at everything.”
In general, the things Romniacs love about their candidate are the same things that other people just like about him: His lack of emotional swings. His business experience. His big family.
“He’s pretty much a geek. And that’s fine with me,” said Katie Witt, a city council member in Longmont, Colo., who is active for Romney on Twitter. “I’m not looking for a superstar. I’m not looking for a movie star. I’m looking for somebody who is able to work with people. I would love to have my boys grow up to be like him.”
In many cases, the superfans’ enthusiasm for Romney is also fired by a deep dislike for President Obama.
“I was sitting at the farm, and I said, ‘We’re going to have to replace this president,’ ” said Jim Wilson, 68, who has driven a truck festooned with Romney stickers to all but three of the states that have voted so far. He counts Romney’s success by the ratio of thumbs-up to middle fingers he sees from other drivers. “I determined that Mitt Romney is the only guy that can beat him on the Republican side. So I said, ‘What can I do?’ . . . This old grandpa can go on the road.”
For some of Romney’s die-hards, one of the difficult parts of the job is explaining the candidate’s famous position changes.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., for instance, locksmith Diana Rae Walter likes to proselytize for Romney while her customers wait for keys to be made. Sometimes they get angry; she almost came to blows with a Newt Gingrich supporter after she got mad and called Gingrich “a big old fat angry muffin.”
And sometimes they bring up abortion. The customers mention that Romney said he thought abortion should be “safe and legal” when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and now says he’s anti-abortion.
Walter tells them they don’t understand.
“He said, look, I’m pro-choice for women to make their choice — myself, I do not believe in abortion,” she said. “So yes, if you want to say he was pro-choice, he was pro-choice for women. But Mitt Romney himself was pro-life.”
One of the stranger stories of Romney mania involves a man who called himself “Mike Sage.” Sage set up several Internet hubs for Romney fans: America Needs Mitt, MittFitts and Mitt Romney Radio, broadcasting online two hours every night.
In a telephone interview last week, he told a Washington Post reporter that he admired Romney’s integrity, honesty and humility. “In a lot of ways, when I look at him, I see a better man than myself,” he said.
But further research revealed that Sage’s real name is Charles Michael Segaloff. In 2003, he pleaded guilty in Washington state to second-degree assault with sexual motivation. He is listed on the sex offender registry in Oklahoma.
In an e-mail message Monday, after his real identity was unearthed, Segaloff said he would be “disengaging myself from [Mitt Romney Radio] for [the] good of all involved.”
A spokeswoman for Romney said Monday that the campaign had no relationship with Segaloff. When Cannon, the volunteer DJ, and others affiliated with his Web hubs learned of Segaloff’s past this week, they demanded that he end his affiliation with their work, they said.
Several days earlier, Cannon sat down to do her Mitt Romney Radio show, on the station Segaloff founded, in Palm Harbor.
“Helloooooo, Romniacs!” she shouted.
On Cannon’s show, she slammed Santorum, saying he was acting like a controlling boyfriend. She blasted Texas Rep. Ron Paul for passing only two of his bills over 20-plus years in Congress. Cannon is not her real last name — she uses her fiance’s last name on air. When she previously used her real name, Paul supporters called to harangue her at work.
“We exist,” she told her audience.
“We exist,” one call-in guest, Colleen in Idaho, affirmed. “I’m not alone! And you're not alone!”
But they’re pretty close. At the end of Cannon’s show, she emerged exhausted from shouting and fighting her stage fright. A computer flashed the size of the audience she’d been speaking to: 155 people.
Research editor Alice Crites and staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar, both in Washington, contributed to this report.