MOORESVILLE, N.C. — The 2012 Olympics may be coming to a close but the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan campaign is picking up the theme. At a rally Sunday here, at NASCAR Technical Institute, the newly minted Republican ticket — with guest appearances from their wives and the backdrop of a giant American flag — let waves of applause and shouts of “USA, USA” pour over them.
Close your eyes and the Sunday morning meeting could have been a Barack Obama event, with the call-and-response cries of “I love you” and “I love you, too” between candidates and audience, though an enthusiastic endorsement from NASCAR’s Darrell Waltrip and a red, white and blue “Romney” race car in the background provided a different twist.
The capacity crowd was capped at 1,700 inside the building, with thousands more listening in overflow rooms and from outside. With both candidates dressed casually — no ties and shirts open at the neck — Romney did not seem to mind that his new running mate earned the gold medal in enthusiasm. Adding him to the ticket was “an economic explosion,” Judi Brittain of Huntersville, N.C., said, then tried to get a better look. The 65-year-old who supports Ryan’s budget plan, said, “We’ve got to make some changes in Medicare and Medicaid.”
As Ryan warmed up and worked the crowd in an important swing state, crucial to both parties’ chances, Romney stood to the side, beaming like the proud father, friend and running mate.
“I just got to meet Darrell Waltrip,” Ryan said, before launching into a hard-hitting attack on Obama’s economic policies, with mention of North Carolina’s 9.4 percent unemployment rate and a vision of “a nation in decline.” In the GOP view, he said, “rights come from nature and God, not from government.” After “so much hope, so much change,” Ryan said, “help is on the way,” in the person of the man who saved the Salt Lake City Olympics from waste and bloat, Romney. “We owe you a choice, a choice of two futures.” There was only a brief slipup, when he made Romney the governor of Virginia, though he quickly corrected that to Massachusetts.
“That’s quite a guy, isn’t he,” said Romney, before delivering his speech with just a bit more punch than usual. Ann Romney took the stage for a moment, and may have earned the silver medal for her few words and thunderous reception. As the Romney bus drove up, she said, she was astounded by the traffic-clogged roads, all the people waiting for them. “Do you see that?” she said she asked Ryan. “They’re here because they get it.”
No matter whether Ryan or Romney is getting the most attention now, if they take the winner’s podium in November, Mitt Romney will be team leader. He was satisfied with that prospect as he promised to restore what he said America has lost, “spirit, an energy, a passion.” He defended his “you didn’t build that” attack on Obama — lifting words out of context — with an anecdote about a child earning a spot on his school’s honor roll. Sure, he said, that kid had help getting to and from school, but you “don’t give the credit to the bus driver, I give it to the kid.” His five-point plan for America went on a bit, though it ended with the sure-fire applause pledge to “repeal Obamacare.”
Mary Mabry, 82, of Mooresville, a retired nurse, said all the fuss over Ryan isn’t necessary. “Mitt’s the one that’s going to be president,” she said. She has read Romney’s book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” and is ready to vote in November, something she didn’t do in 2008 because she didn’t like Barack Obama or John McCain. The Ryan budget plan is something she said she needs to study, but “if Mitt thinks it’s all right, it’s all right with me.”
The all-American Olympics comparison faltered when it comes to national unity, though. Whatever spirit erases divisions of class, race and geography during the games deepens when political parties square off with the White House in sight. It wasn’t just the boos each time Obama’s name was mentioned, the signs or the jokes. (It’s “not that liberals are ignorant, it’s that what they know is wrong,” said Romney to cheers, channeling Ronald Reagan.)
Personal mistrust is fueling the widening divisions in America, a sentiment that may be echoed when the Democratic convention gets underway down the road in Charlotte in a few weeks. You could feel that, too.
On Sunday, Judi Brittain’s husband, 67-year-old Ralph Brittain of Huntersville, N.C., a former Democrat, described himself as “a fiscal conservative.” Brittain, the owner of an insurance business and Air Force veteran, spoke movingly when he credited his political awakening to a 1976 conversation with Reagan, who he said told him, “America is the shining city on the hill,” where all come for freedom, liberty and opportunity. “The thing that’s killing America is the lack of cooperation between elected representatives on both sides of the aisle,” he told me. “I don’t want to be divisive; I want to be unifying.” He said that “as a Christian, I don’t hate anybody,” before admitting he wasn’t sure if Obama is a citizen. “I want to see his college transcripts,” he said, and passport records, and said that Obama’s adopted father made him an Indonesian citizen “so he could go to a madrassa.”
On the road leading to the event, pockets of protesters held signs in support of Obama and questioning Romney’s tax plan and other policies. Though mostly ignored, they got their share of jeers, with “Have Obama show us his college records” and “Get a job!” the most frequent. Melinda Rothwell said she has several jobs, including loan officer and coaching children’s volleyball. The 48-year-old single mother of two from Mooresville said, “I’m petrified at what’s going to happen to women and seniors” if the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected. “My life is much better,” she said, with Obama as president.
Jeff Schofield, 49, of north Charlotte doesn’t like the rancorous tone at all. The Air Force veteran is clear about where he stands — he and his wife, Jana, 56, came to support the Romney-Ryan ticket — but he said he’s had his fill of campaign attack ads. The Schofields, who listened from just outside because of the crowds, lived in Massachusetts when Romney was governor and liked what he did there, and Ryan, Jeff Schofield said, “has got the fiscal abilities we really need now.”
But Obama, “he’s my president,” he said. “I didn’t vote for him, but I cried when he became president,” thinking of how far the country has come.
Sort of like they do at the Olympics.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3