Flashing aggressively friendly smiles, the Saturday morning crowd flocked to the Fish House in their Sunday best. They brought signs and cameras and babies. Everyone jockeyed for a better view, or maybe another pancake.
America’s great tent revival—the political carnival that is the U.S. presidential campaign—had come to town, and people were ready for the gospel.
“It’s Mitt, he’s here!” said a young woman on the balcony, as she spied Romney’s bus pull into view.
The Fish House’s deck was packed with people awaiting Romney. Or, maybe they were waiting for Sen. John McCain. Or, maybe Jon Voight.
Regardless, soon everyone was bobbing to Kid Rock’s “Born Free,” as Romney made the rounds. Shaking hands. Waving. Thumbs-up to you—yeah, you—all the way in the back.
The governor of Virginia and Voight warmed the crowd up for McCain, who absolutely killed. The Arizona senator launched into a rough-around-the-edges routine that focused largely on his time spent locally in flight school.
“I donated my entire paycheck to cultural institutions here,” McCain laughed with the crowd.
Romney opened up by saying he couldn’t follow McCain’s bit, then proceeded to tell a joke.
“It may not be that funny, but I love it,” Romney said.
He rambled out something about a car not having a governor on it, the punch line was tough to hear. It didn’t matter. It probably wasn’t that funny. He’d already prepared everyone for that.
But Romney wasn’t here to joke around. He was here for the vote—the Big Win—and he headed straight for the red meat: God and guns. It’s a tough sell for a Mormon from Massachusetts, but Mitt was determined to pull it off.
“I really think this is a battle for the soul of America,” Romney said.
The crowd agreed. Vigorously. They didn’t want to live in a European social welfare state. They didn’t want any D.C. dingbat telling them where they could and couldn’t drill for oil. And, yeah, they’d bring a boot down on Iran and straighten out that mess, too.
Romney also said it would be a bad idea to cut back on the nation’s military, especially considering recent happenings, such as the Arab Spring, where dictators have been overthrown by uprisings aiming at democracy.
“The world is not a more safe place,” he told the crowd.
Romney began drawing his remarks to a close, by relaying a story of himself personally phoning spouses of service members. He interspersed verses of “America the Beautiful” into the story.
“We’re a patriotic people,” Romney said. “We love America.”
No one could disagree with the that. That’s the kind of closer you walk away on. Romney waved and smiled at the crowd. He seemed to know everyone understood—it was really his turn this time.
The man looked relieved. The kind of relief that comes with feeling like you’ve got the Panhandle—and probably the rest of Florida—sewn up tighter than Rick Santorum’s jaw.