I Like You Guys
Mitt Romney's low-key campaign to befriend every businessman in Iowa, one by one.
PELLA, Iowa—Mitt Romney wants to know about the wall. He walks into the headquarters of Vermeer, a manufacturer that employs more people than any other company in this small city, and sees a concrete wall embedded with little knickknacks and propellers and widgets. It looks like a particularly wide, and particularly grim, rock-climbing wall.
"So it looks like you've put some components in the concrete!" says Romney. "That's pretty fun!"
It's the "fossil wall," explains his guide, studded with trinkets from the company's products. "There are employees who can point to that and say, 'I know what that goes to.' "
"Isn't that something!" says Romney. He gets to the conference room where 14 local business leaders and about three times that number of reporters are waiting for him. He contemplates the checked shirt and khakis he's put on today.
"I left my sport coat in the car," says Romney. "But I guess you won't mind if I'm underdressed!"
This is a room full of people who are paid to outthink other businesses, and people who are paid to be cynical. There's no reason to believe that Romney forgot the jacket. He is making only three stops on this trip—four if you count his second televised debate appearance Thursday night. He flew down from Chicago in coach, and he'll be shuttling to his events in a regular-sized SUV; there's no bus with a Death Star-sized painting of his face, no stadium sound. His challenge is to look and sound low-key without sounding like he's phoning it in. That means shirtsleeves.
The event is coordinated to provide a minimum of news. Romney, at the head of the table, asks the businessmen to tell him "what we can do in Washington to make the private sector more competitive globally."
"When I go across the country and I hear from small businesses," he says, "time and again—I hear, 'Gosh, I used to be getting loans from my community bank, and I can't anymore. They're not loaning money.' Time and time again. Then I meet with bankers, and I say, I'm hearing this. Why is that? They say they don't know which regulations are coming down the pike."
He promises to sit back and listen.
"I'm Denny Van Zanten from the Pella Corporation," says Denny Van Zanten of the Pella Corporation.
"Denny!" says Romney.
"You've talked about the uncertainty," says Van Zanten. "What can we do to have some teamwork between the government to get rid of some of that and to create a positive attitude right here in the ol' U.S. of A?"
Romney nods thoughtfully over an hour of short statements like this. After each of the masters of industry and banking speak, he shares a minute or so of wisdom.
"There is the perception—and in my view, the reality—that the administration has been an anti-business administration," he says. "What the administration needs to be doing is working out trade agreements. Now, I'll see if I've got the correct numbers, but I believe that Asian and European countries have added 47 bilateral trade agreements in the last two and a half years. And we've added none."
Why can't the whole caucuses process be so civilized? When Romney wraps, electronics- component manufacturer and winery owner Robert Wersten talks about how clearly superior this guy is for the presidency, and how it might not matter.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Mitt Romney by Scott Olson/Getty Images.