PENSACOLA, Fla. — Before Mitt Romney uttered a word at his campaign rally here Saturday morning, his surrogate sidekicks seemed to have stolen the headlines.
Actor Jon Voight declared that President Obama had decided to “take us to socialism.” Then Sen. John McCain turned to Voight, who played a villain on the TV counterterrorism series “24,” and said: “I was frightened the whole time. … Wasn’t [Voight] a threat to America and the world? … Jack Bauer killed him three or four times, thank God.”
McCain recalled his time in Pensacola as a mischievous young Navy pilot spending his entire paycheck at “cultural institutions here.” With that, he had a crowd of hundreds filling the balconies and waterfront deck of the Fish House in stitches. And then the 2008 GOP presidential nominee noted that following Voight and other introducers onstage made him “feel a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s fifth husband — [who] on [their] wedding night said: ‘I know what I’m supposed to do. I just don’t know how to make it interesting.’ ”
Romney thought McCain was more than interesting enough. “I thought we brought only one actor and comedian here today,” the former Massachusetts governor said, following his onetime rival at the podium. “Gosh, that was quite a repartee there, Senator. That was fabulous. I don’t know how this city has survived without your paychecks coming in every week. I hear stories!”
With the audience warmed up, Romney tried a joke of his own. “I have to tell you one of my favorites,” he said. “It may not be that funny, but I love it.
“There’s this farmer in Wyoming. He’s driving this truck, this livestock truck. He’s driving along, gets going too fast, state trooper pulls him over and comes up and says: ‘You’re going awfully fast. Don’t you have a governor on this thing?’ He says, ‘No, the smell you smell is from the animals in back.’ ”
The crowd laughed politely, and Romney moved on to deliver a variation of his standard stump speech. He recited lines from “America the Beautiful” and promised to expand the military and pursue a muscular foreign policy. Romney brought up his chief rival, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, only once as he reminisced about Thursday night’s debate.
“We’ve had about 18 debates so far,” Romney said. “They’re getting more and more fun as time goes on. This last one, Speaker Gingrich said he didn’t do so well because the audience was so loud. The one before, he said he didn’t do so well because the audience was too quiet. This is like Goldilocks, you know, you’ve got to get it just right. When I debate the president, I’m not going to worry about the audience. I’m going to make sure that we take down Barack Obama and take back the White House.”
But though Romney was largely silent about Gingrich, while he was speaking, his campaign released its latest television advertisement in Florida — a negative spot about Gingrich’s ethics violations as speaker. Titled “History Lesson,” the ad shows footage of Tom Brokaw anchoring an “NBC Nightly News” broadcast about Gingrich’s colleagues finding him guilty of ethics violations.
Romney’s surrogates, however, did not hold their fire.
“I’m sorry to say Speaker Gingrich may fall short in many ways,” Voight said.
“Governor Romney is a man of faith, honor, love and truth,” he added. “He is strong, honest and wants to bring the country back to its exceptional place where we have been for hundreds and hundreds of years until President Obama decided to follow his father’s footsteps and take us to socialism.”
McCain, for his part, laced into Gingrich for his attacks on Romney’s tenure at the venture capital firm Bain Capital. He said it was “a sign of desperation.”
“I do not understand — I do not understand, do you? — why anyone would attack a person who’s successful in business, in the free-enterprise system,” McCain said. “That is a sign of desperation. A desperate candidate is a candidate who attacks someone who succeeds in the free-enterprise system.”
McCain, sporting a Navy baseball cap in this military stronghold, urged voters along Florida’s Gulf Coast to vote early for Romney or cast their ballots Tuesday in the primary.
“Don’t let me hear on Wednesday morning that you forgot to vote,” McCain said. “We have surveillance cameras.”