EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Top Republicans over the past few weeks have blitzed swing states for Mitt Romney in an effort to help elect the man they’d like to see become the next president of the United States.
On Saturday, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee returned the favor.
Romney swept through a family-owned barbecue joint in the Hoosier State’s third-largest city on Saturday afternoon to stump for Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer and GOP nominee who will face Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) this November in the race to become Indiana’s next senator.
The event, which marked one of the rare times this year that Romney has stumped on behalf of a Senate hopeful in a battleground state, was Romney’s first with Mourdock this year.
But as Mourdock pointed out to the enthusiastic group of about 80 supporters crowded around tables at Stepto’s Bar-B-Q Shack, the two actually first crossed paths in Evansville four years ago, when Romney visited the city to stump for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Back then — as on Saturday — Mourdock introduced Romney, who he noted “was one of the very first to step forward” and declare his support for McCain after dropping out of the 2008 GOP primary.
“He is back,” Mourdock said. “And he’s here in part because he is the ultimate team player. Politics is all about being a team. This is not a solo sport.”
The statement had particular import coming from Mourdock, the tea party favorite who last May turned his long shot candidacy into an upset victory over six-term Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in the race for the GOP Senate nomination.
Lugar’s loss to Mourdock was a particularly bitter one, but this week the two appeared to have buried the hatchet as the long-serving senator invited the man who dethroned him to be guest of honor at the weekly Senate Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill.
Romney, unlike some other top Republicans including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), had remained neutral in the primary.
The visit by Romney comes as Indiana is shaping up to be a more hospitable state for Republicans than it was four years ago.
Fueled by a strong ground organization and by an electorate eager for change, President Obama in 2008 eked out a 1-percent victory over McCain to become the first Democrat to win Indiana since 1964.
This year, amid a still-sputtering economic recovery, a Democratic victory in the Hoosier State appears a less likely proposition, although national Democrats maintain that Senate nominee Joe Donnelly represents their party’s best chance in the fall.
In their brief visit to the barbecue shack on Saturday, Romney and Mourdock addressed several dozen supporters who had been waiting outside the restaurant in the afternoon heat.
Inside the venue, they spoke for about 10 minutes, then shook hands and took pictures with supporters before Romney ordered a pulled chicken sandwich and headed out to a high-dollar fundraiser at the home of businessman Steven E. Chancellor. Among those expected to attend the fundraiser were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), former vice president Dan Quayle and actors Bo Derek and Ricky Schroder.
Standing in front of a brick fireplace in the cozy, yellow-walled barbecue joint, Romney delivered a shortened version of his stump speech. As he spoke, the smell of Memphis-style barbecue wafted through the restaurant, and on the walls above him were hung signs such as, “Once you go Shack, you’ll always come back,” “Low and Slow” and “Warning: This place is on fire.”
Romney ran through his five-point economic plan and repeated his pledge to the crowd that if he is elected, North America will become energy independent by the end of his second term.
“One reason we’re both going there is to change Washington, and to make sure that we finally get ourselves on track to a balanced budget,” he told the crowd, gesturing toward Mourdock. He added: “How come I feel like my government sees me as the enemy? When you raises taxes, as the president has proposed, on small businesses, you kill small business and you kill jobs.”
He called Mourdock a proven campaigner and a man who, as state treasurer, “knows how to make sure to balance the books.”
And while his campaign-trail remarks have typically focused on the struggling economy under Obama, toward the end of his speech, Romney on Saturday sounded a particularly optimistic note when it comes to how he envisions the economic recovery under a Romney presidency.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m excited about what’s coming,” he said. “You have to know that this country is poised to take off economically. I know we feel kind of distressed over the number of people that are having hard times. ... This does not have to be this way. This nation is a powerhouse.”
“We’re going to see this economy come back, but we’re going to have to get a new president, and I’m planning on being that new president,” he added to cheers.
At one point, Romney appeared to play up his Midwestern roots — and narrowly avoid making a gaffe about his home state — as he urged supporters to back Mourdock as well as Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is running for governor.
“I’ll tell you what,” Romney said, “Governor Pence is going to do a heck of a good job, too. So we’ve got to make sure we’ve got Governor Pence, Senator Mourdock and maybe this guy from — well, I was raised in Michigan, but I’m really a Massachusetts guy now. But you know what, I’m an American who loves this country.”
After Romney finished speaking, a woman in the back of the crowd shook his hand and told him, “We’re making calls for you. We’re going to get you elected.”
“I’m counting on Indiana in a big way,” he responded.
In contrast to Friday, when he seemed fatigued after a long day traveling from Colorado to Nevada and then on to Idaho, Romney on Saturday appeared in an upbeat mood.
He asked the ages of several young girls at a table and also jokingly used the title “your honor” in referring to the restaurant’s owner, Mike Stepto, who is also a certified barbecue judge.
It was Stepto who had posted next to the satellite trucks and police cars parked outside the restaurant a large signboard reading, “Welcome Gov. Romney. I Built This Business.”
In an interview, Stepto, a self-described Republican, said he was disappointed by Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark, although he did not directly take aim at Obama as some other business owners who have posted similar signs across the country have done.
In deciding to open his doors on Saturday to Romney and Mourdock as well as dozens of supporters, local and national media persons, Stepto cited his support for the presumptive GOP nominee, as well as one other factor:
The event would be good for business.