Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
Mitt Romney, in jeans and a blue and white oxford, stood just to the right of the stage at Baker's of Milford Banquet Hall, nodding his head slightly as an enthusiastic soloist with a wireless microphone belted out the first verse of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." The former Massachusetts governor smiled and joined most of the crowd for the chorus. "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free."
Wes Nakagiri, a leader of a Tea Party group called RetakeOurGov, wore a suit to introduce Romney and offered a short speech that ended with a thundering call to action. "We believe that America's best days are ahead of us if we can just put Barack Obama behind us!" The crowd rose to its feet and offered sustained applause as Romney took the stage.
"Wes, thank you for that introduction," Romney said, in front of a flag 20-feet high. "I agree with everything you had to say there, as I'm sure everyone else in this room did. I particularly liked the part where everybody got to their feet when we talked about replacing Barack Obama!"
Romney came to Milford to address a meeting of eight Tea Party groups — some 500 activists — from south-central Michigan just five days before the February 28 primary. His challenge on this cold night is the central challenge of his campaign: Can he win over the same conservative voters and Tea Party activists who helped produce a historic victory in the 2010 midterm elections?
Reports of the death of the Tea Party are greatly exaggerated. Despite a steady stream of stories in the establishment press claiming the end of Tea Party influence, voters energized by the movement have proven crucial in a primary season that was supposed to have been a victory march for the candidate with the most money and best organization — Romney. But he has had difficulty connecting with them.
In the first four GOP contests, exit polls showed that voters identifying themselves as "very conservative" or "strong Tea Party supporters" had chosen other candidates in large numbers. In Iowa, Romney won just 14 percent of "very conservative" voters and an equal number of "strong Tea Party supporters." In New Hampshire, those numbers increased to 33 percent and 36 percent respectively. In South Carolina, however, just 21 percent of "strong Tea party supporters" backed Romney and 19 percent of "very conservative" voters. In Florida, those numbers increased to 30 percent and 33 percent. A recent Rasmussen national poll found that just 17 percent of voters who called themselves "very conservative" support Romney.
In Milford, Romney opened his remarks by touting his personal connections with the state. He told a story about his father, governor here in the 1960s, mistaking Mount Clemens for Mount Pleasant. Romney recalled that he was raised in a "lovely home" — since bulldozed — in Palmer Park, a comment that drew a few knowing nods. He reported that he had gone to kindergarten in Detroit — "I think it was called Hampton School" — where there were 30 or 40 kids in his class.
But the speech focused on economic issues. He spoke without notes and criticized Obama for failing to provide solutions to unemployment, a growing federal deficit, and the crushing debt burden caused by entitlement programs. He reviewed the tax plan his campaign rolled out earlier in the week and promised spending restraint. "I've got a whole list of programs we're going to eliminate," he said, without providing details. He promised that every program in the federal government during a Romney presidency would have to pass a threshold test: Is it worth borrowing from the Chinese in order to keep it?
It was standard Romney stump-speech fare and he ended, as he often does, with a paean to America. "After hearing that rendition of the national anthem — and my favorite rendition is the one I just heard. And what I mean by that is, I love it when I hear the people in the room sing along with the soloist and the musicians. It was very touching, very moving. And I appreciate your patriotism, your love of this country. We're a very patriotic people."
Hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" sung with such passion, he said, made him want to share a story from his days running the Olympics. Romney's told it many times before, but he set it up as something of a patriotism bonus.