Atlantic, Iowa — Where are the Romney supporters?

You would think that the Family Table Restaurant in Atlantic, Iowa — Mitt Romney’s first campaign stop of 2012 — would be a good place to find Romney supporters.

But as usual with Romney, you would be mistaken.

Throughout the campaign, there have been many strong Not Romney supporters. If Not Romney were an actual candidate, he would be leading the pack. In fact, he has been for the past few months, under varying names. People are so eager not to vote for Romney that, after exhausting all other options, they are preparing to vote for Rick Santorum, whom many of them have never heard of, even though he took them out for coffee that one time.

But Romney seems confident in Iowans’ support — confident enough to spend part of his New Year’s Day in Atlantic, the Coca-Cola capital of Iowa, host of the annual Coca-Cola Days Celebration, the “second-largest mini-convention of Coca-Cola collectors,” according to the town’s Web site. In general, hosts of collectors conventions try to keep this information hushed up, but Atlantic wears this on its sleeve. But on Jan. 1, the only excitement is Mitt Romney’s visit.

The Family Table is one of the few places in Atlantic that is open on New Year’s Day. The McDonald’s is closed. The Burger King is closed. But the Family Table is open.

And the restaurant is packed to the gills — with reporters. There are so many reporters in attendance that one worries they will start interviewing each other by accident. The few Actual Iowans have all been interviewed approximately eight times apiece and have developed a fluency with journalists that Romney himself might envy, waxing lyrical about their entrancingly wavering positions leading into the caucuses.

“Are you a Romney supporter?” I ask Beatrice Hackwell, who showed up nearly half an hour before the candidate in order to see him in person. “I’m between Romney and Bachmann,” she says. “I don’t like Newt.” She’d supported Romney in 2004. What went wrong then? “I don’t think he can connect with people,” Hackwell suggests.

Gene and Shirley Kinen linger after Romney speaks. They like his “good family values” and identify with the Romneys’ love story. They’ve been coming out to these caucuses since Nixon. Who was the best? “Nixon was,” Gene says, then pauses. “Then Reagan came along.” Romney doesn’t make the cut.

But the Not Romney forces are hard at work. By the time the event ends, someone has assiduously stuffed anti-Romney pamphlets under the door handles of those cars unfortunate enough to be parked within a block radius of the restaurant. “Conservatives will not support Romney in the general election,” the double-sided photocopied pamphlets proclaim. “Romney is not a trusted conservative.” They are serious. They go so far as to excerpt an article by Jennifer Rubin.

This sort of thing takes real dedication.

Those who have come to the Family Table before recommend its cheese balls. These are orange cheese curds, battered and fried. They are inexpensive and delicious.

At long last, Romney emerges. He stands behind the restaurant counter with his wife, Ann, looking cheerful and Brylcreemed. She sports a red jacket and accidentally misnames her youngest son, Craig. ( “Sorry,” she says. “Wrong son.”) It is a relief to know that she has the same problems as the rest of us. Romney speaks of the time they met — Ann was 15, he was a senior, and he offered her a ride home. He then launches into a campaign speech about believing in America, repealing Obamacare and pursuing a more hawkish foreign policy.

As he speaks, a short, white-haired woman in a sweater that depicts an exuberant snowman pushes past me toward the counter behind which Romney is delivering his speech. I assume it is to see Romney. Instead, she beelines for my plate of cheese balls, grabs a handful and disappears before he finishes speaking.