ROCHESTER, N.H. — These are Mitt’s passion makers — a band of surrogates who make the case for Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy more passionately, and sometimes more persuasively, than the candidate himself.
Everywhere the Republican front-runner has campaigned this past week, he has been introduced by one or more of them. At a rally in Manchester, it was former New Hampshire governor John Sununu: “That’s a true conservative! That’s a real leader!” At a spaghetti dinner in Tilton, it was former congressman Jeb Bradley: “My name is Jeb Bradley and I have a friend. Mitt USA! Mitt USA! Mitt USA!” At a town hall meeting in Peterborough, it was Sen. John McCain (Ariz.): “There’s been the flavor of the month . . . but there’s always been Romney.”
There have been others, too. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (“We need his experience in Washington!”), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (“We need a landslide in New Hampshire!”) and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (“Are you ready to elect a president of the United States who doesn’t strangle the economy by its economic throat?”).
And Sunday night in Exeter, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will roar into the Granite State to introduce Romney. The last time they shared a stage, in a chilly Iowa parking lot just before last week’s caucuses, Christie threatened to return — “Jersey-style, people” — if Iowans didn’t jump aboard the Romney train.
In an effort to build momentum heading into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Romney has turned to brighter stars — or at least more bombastic public speakers — for help.
“Even Johnny Carson needed Ed McMahon,” said Tom Rath, a senior Romney adviser based in New Hampshire. “It’s a lot to ask him to be the emcee and the star.”
Romney’s introducers don’t merely stand on stage to validate the former Massachusetts governor’s conservative credentials and press his campaign’s message that he has the skills and experience to beat President Obama. They also bring needed energy to his road show.
For a candidate seemingly from central casting, primped and primed for the Oval Office, Romney on the stump is devoid of the pizzazz that so many past presidents have parlayed into electoral success. He rarely stirs passion in his audiences — which, to his credit, have been large, if largely subdued.
Romney visibly feeds off the energy created by his guests. Saturday, at an early-morning rally in Derry, Haley introduced Romney with verve. She raised her arms and said: “Get excited, New Hampshire!”
When Haley turned the microphone over to Romney, he told her: “Oh, you stay here. Don’t leave! Oh, this is so much fun.” Glancing at Haley and Ayotte, who also spoke, Romney told the crowd of about 1,000: “You can’t imagine how much fun it is to be here with these great conservative leaders.”
Romney’s deployment of surrogates speaks not only to the broad support he has received from Republican luminaries but also to his campaign’s acknowledgment of Romney’s liabilities as a candidate.
A few days before Christmas, Romney delivered a major speech in Bedford that his campaign billed as his closing argument to New Hampshire voters. He spoke from teleprompters, and professional camera crews were on hand to film the event for use in his campaign advertisements. But the address seemed to fall flat with his audience. A couple hundred supporters sat politely in folding chairs and offered only occasional applause.
After the Bedford speech, Romney’s advisers exchanged strategy memos debating how to create more electricity at his campaign events. They started playing louder warm-up music — including his theme song, Kid Rock’s “Born Free,” which thumped through the Rochester Opera House as he bounded onto the stage here Sunday — as well as recruiting more high-profile surrogates to speak.
Before, “all the energy in the room was energy that he brings into the room. He wasn’t electric,” Rath said. “It’s gotten electric now. . . . All the energy in the room is there before he gets into the room. Now it takes us 25 or 30 minutes to get him out of the room. He gets interrupted by applause.”
The surrogates don’t always stay on script, however. Romney and McCain, who had an intense rivalry during the 2008 race, exchanged awkward banter at their five joint campaign stops last week. At one event in South Carolina, McCain mistakenly referred to Romney as Obama. And at what was staged as a triumphant return to New Hampshire on Wednesday following his eight-vote win in Iowa, complete with the soundtrack of “Top Gun,” McCain found a way to jab Romney.
“By the way,” he told a lukewarm audience at a Manchester high school gymnasium, “we forgot to congratulate him on his landslide victory last night.”
Later that day, at a town hall in Peterborough, McCain dubbed Romney “Landslide Mitt.”
But landslide or not, McCain seemed convinced of the final outcome.
“On behalf of Mitt Romney,” McCain said, “I’d like to invite all of you to his inauguration.”
The crowd erupted in applause. And Romney, smiling to the side, laughed his signature laugh: “Ha. Ha. Ha.”