The room was packed with Romney endorsers. Half the room stuck around to try and press flesh when he finished. He loaded up on positive vibes, because he was about to head 70 minutes east to Troy, Mich. Romney had to follow Rick Santorum at a one-day seminar put on by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the best-funded of the Tea Party mega-groups. (Democrats never miss a chance to remind you that David Koch helps fund this one.)
We weren’t in Romney country anymore. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, had just endorsed Romney. AFP was passing out fliers warning that Snyder wanted to “raise your gas prices,” portraying him cold and uncaring in front of an expensive-looking pump. (The governor supports a higher gas tax.) Santorum had just called Barack Obama a “snob” and Romney a simp who “adopt[ed] the verbiage of Occupy Wall Street.” Santorum had completely won the room over. Columnist Michelle Malkin, speaking after him, accidentally re-endorsed him from the stage. (This is frowned upon at nonpartisan, educational AFP events.)
Romney had a tougher time of it. Watching him sell himself as a conservative was like watching Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross try to sell overpriced plots of real estate. “I was in business for 25 years,” he said. Mild applause. “I will cut spending, I will cap spending, and I will finally balance the budget.” Louder applause, no real rapture. The real sirloin in the speech was a long section trashing Rick Santorum as a phony conservative. Romney pointed to Santorum’s debate performance as proof that he couldn’t be trusted—he “took one for the team,” he would fold again. But proving this case meant providing examples. “He voted for No Child Left Behind,” said Romney. “I favored that, by the way, but he was opposed to it, and he voted for it.” Strong stuff.
Another tack: “It was also in 1996 that [Santorum] supported Arlen Specter, by the way. Arlen Specter, the only pro-choice candidate we’ve seen in that race. There were other conservative candidates running, like Bob Dole. He didn’t support them! He supported the pro-choice candidate.”
Bob Dole? The conservative candidate? The guy Santorum and Gingrich mention as proof that Republicans never win if they pick compromisers? As Romney struggled, Andrew Breitbart paced near the table where organizers had parked a coffee carafe on top of a slowly browning white tablecloth.
“I despise the left because I despise the political correctness they apply to everyone and everything,” said Breitbart. “I see the same thing happening on the right with this campaign. You don’t support Ron Paul, you’re not a conservative. You don’t support Santorum, you’re not a conservative.”
Breitbart was describing Romney’s problem perfectly. Romney’s allies in the state can’t really disagree with his analysis. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a freshman Republican who represents one of the districts Romney carried in 2008, told me that the voters would come around, slowly.
“You’ll hear people clap when Santorum talks about right to work,” said Huizenga. “That’s one of the issues he’s the worst on? Look, I like Rick Santorum. I just don’t think he can win in November. Voters are going to learn more about him and figure this out. He’s getting a boomlet, like all of these other candidates had boomlets with Republican voters. Herman Cain wasn’t perfect. Michele Bachmann wasn’t perfect. Rick Perry wasn’t perfect. They’re looking for perfect. Perfect isn’t showing up right now.”
As they filed out of Romney’s speech, the AFP Tea Partiers were still waiting for perfect. They buzzed about Santorum, not the guy who was born a few miles away. And Romney was ending his day in Flint, in front of a mixed crowd, not overwhelming in size, supportive but not thrilled. He closed the speech by starting to talk up his electability. Polls show that Republicans are far more confident that he could beat Obama than they are about the new phenom from Pennsylvania. It’s the Romney trump card.
“I think I’m the only guy in this race that will be able to beat Barack Obama,” said Romney. “And why is that?”
The crowd interrupted Romney with cheers.
“We’ve got to get that job done,” said Romney.
He didn’t actually explain “why” he was electable. He just started asking for people to turn out on Tuesday and vote. The crowd didn’t need an answer. Because these Michigan voters know that they are the ones who will choose to make him electable.