NORTH CANTON, Ohio — It looked like an endorsement, and it sounded like an endorsement — but seriously, folks, it was just nice to have Mitt Romney in town.
The 2012 Republican nominee for president, campaigning for the first time since his blistering anti-endorsement of Donald Trump, arrived at an airplane museum in Ohio Gov. John Kasich's campaign bus. As Kasich mugged, Romney grinned and waved and the bus rolled up to the backdrop — fighter jet, helicopter, "Patton"-size American flag — where the two would hold a town-hall meeting.
"You're the ones who are going to decide if he becomes the next president of the United States," Romney said. "You look at this guy, and unlike the other people running, he has a real track record. He has the kind of record that you want in Washington. That's why I'm convinced that you're going to do the right thing tomorrow."
He did not say the e-word, but the Republicans who had crowded into the museum assumed they were witnessing a historic endorsement. Noah Raines and Caleb Pierce, two 18-year-olds casting their first presidential votes this year, came to the rally in vintage Romney 2012 buttons.
"What kind of president would he have been?" Raines said. "I think about it basically every day."
Martin Fauber, 71, was surprised to see Romney but made sure to note that Kasich earned his vote decades ago. "I'd vote for any Republican," Fauber said, "even Trump, but I don't think Romney's the man."
Romney, who is still on record for Republicans to support whichever rival to Donald Trump can defeat him in their states, spoke for just a few minutes before taking a seat and listening, with a smile, to the man poised to become the Republican mainstream's candidate after March 15.
"Think of the most awkward, personal, uncomfortable question you can think of, because that'll be the most fun to listen to!" Romney said.
But Romney let Kasich handle the Q&A, and Kasich returned the favor by imagining a world where the 2012 election went another way.
"If Mitt Romney would've been president — whaddya think?" Kasich asked, to applause. "Incredible family. His wife? Incredible."
Then Kasich went negative — or as negative as was allowed in this friendly setting.
"You had the Olympics in Salt Lake City, and they were falling apart," Kasich said, reminiscing about Romney's 2002 turnaround job. "I mean, it would almost be as bad as people slugging it out with images being broadcast around this world."
That was the last quasi-reference to Trump. The only discord in North Canton came when a heckler held a sign referring to an unpaid bill of more than $11,000 related to security and other costs from Romney’s visits in 2012. The Romney campaign has disputed that the money is owed, but North Canton Mayor David Held said the campaign essentially stiffed a struggling city.
“I think it illustrates the disconnect between mainstream America and Washington, D.C.,” Held said in an interview last week, explaining that the city has lost significant revenue from factory closures over the years. “You’ve got hard-working people here. We love to see the candidates visit, but we don’t have the revenue” to pay for the additional costs, he said.
There was no more mention of that as the heckler was removed. Romney, dressed in Kasich's colors —blue blazer, gray slacks — grinned through the Q&A, worked the crowd, then jumped back on the bus.
Stephanie McCrummen contributed to this report.