PORTLAND, Maine — When Mark Abbott read in the paper Thursday that Mitt Romney was coming to Maine, he decided to get in the car and make the four-and-a-half-hour drive down from New Brunswick, Canada, together with his 16-year-old daughter, Meghann.
The duo wasn’t coming to cheer Romney on, however.
“There’s a lot of things that offend me in politics,” said Mark Abbott, a 46-year-old stockbroker and Obama supporter who is originally from Texas. But the long-circulating story of how Romney placed his dog, Seamus, in a rooftop carrier on a 12-hour family road trip two decades ago crossed the line, he said.
Mark Abbott said that the thing that bothered him most about the reported incident was that Romney “rationalized it; he didn’t apologize.”
Romney’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But in the past, Romney’s camp has typically brushed off the Seamus story as a non-issue whenever Democrats or the other GOP contenders have brought up the tale on the campaign trail.
“Oh please,” Romney told the Wall Street Journal in December when asked about the tale. “I’ve had a lot of dogs and love them and care for them very deeply.”
“Seriously, who would put a dog on top of the roof of a moving car?” asked Meghann Abbott, who said the story disqualified Romney in her mind from serving as president. She stood with her father outside the Romney venue wearing a gray sweatshirt hand-decorated with pictures of dogs and the words, “I ride inside. Dogs against Romney.” On her head was a sweatshirt hood with two ears sewn on, and she held a hand-lettered sign: “Dogs aren’t luggage.”
The Abbotts were among a handful of protesters who greeted Romney outside the waterfront Portland Company Marine Complex on Friday night. Romney had brought his campaign here with an eye toward heading off a victory by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the libertarian-leaning congressman who looks set to make a strong showing in Saturday’s municipal caucuses.
Inside the hall, more than 400 enthusiastic supporters cheered for Romney, and the candidate took questions from them — as well as from a few persistent hecklers — at his first town hall in nearly a month.
Outside the venue, however, demonstrators from both sides of the aisle had come to get their messages across. And the mix wound up being a collection of strange bedfellows motivated by the political and, well, the not-too-political.
Gary Harvey, 52 and of Woolwich, Maine, had come to the Romney event straight from the Bath Iron Works, where he works building Navy ships. He was still wearing his work glasses as he stood outside the Romney venue, waving signs for Paul.
Part of the reason he opposes Romney, Harvey said, is his record on Second Amendment rights.
“Massachusetts, Spirit of America?” he said, quoting the slogan on the Bay State’s license plate. “I hope not!”
Harvey, who had been a libertarian but registered as a Republican to vote for Paul, said he attended the past week’s caucuses together with about 10 friends and his “whole family” of Paul supporters.
Not only did all of them win spots as delegates at the state convention in Augusta in May, Harvey said, but the yet-to-be-released results of the Sagadahoc County straw poll point to a Paul victory.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Harvey said of a potential Romney loss in Maine. “That’s why he’s here, because he knows he’s going to lose this state.”
Romney had more than his share of supporters on Friday — about a dozen young backers were gathered a few feet from Harvey and the Abbotts, waving signs, and other Romney supporters heading into Friday’s event voiced confidence that their candidate is the one best-poised to defeat Obama in the fall.
“I think [Romney’s] the man that’s going to get Barack Obama out of the White House,” said Greg Jennings, a 60-year-old retiree and longtime Romney supporter from Biddeford. “That’s the main thing.”
Both Jennings and his wife, Karen, a 56-year-old registered nurse, pointed to Romney’s downsizing of government during his tenure as governor of nearby Massachusetts as one of the main reasons for their support.
Greg Jennings said he had thought briefly of caucusing for Paul because of his ideas on limited government, “but how old’s he going to be in eight years?”
If Maine’s ultra-low-turnout caucuses indicate anything, it’s where voters’ enthusiasm lies. And while we’ll have to wait a few hours to find out the results of what happened at the state’s municipal caucuses, Friday night was a telling example of how one supposed part of Romney’s biography has struck a particular chord — if not a political one, then a chord among dog lovers.
“It lends more to character than competence, you know?” Mark Abbott said of the Seamus story. “I wouldn’t want somebody with a lack of empathy to be president.”
At that moment, a silver station wagon passed by with a dog carrier strapped on top and a Romney sign above it. The driver honked his horn and gave a thumbs-up to the Abbotts, who waved back.
“If it wasn’t for the cruelty part, it would be hysterical,” Mark Abbott said with a sigh.