MARION, Iowa -- Mitt Romney's "Christmas Caucus Extravaganza" at Linn-Mar High School ended up a bit lighter on the "Christmas" than planned after school administrators made it clear that any overt Birth of Christ decorative overtones would violate the school's No Christmas Parties policy. So the Romney campaign was forced to bid adieu to their Christmas tree and Santa Claus, and say hello to the appellation holiday party.
No matter. If neither the teenage string quartet performing "The Infant King" in the cafeteria corner nor the bright red poinsettias and punch clued the several hundred revelers in to the fact that this was an event designed for the Jesus is the Reason for the Season crowd, Romney's persistent invocation of "heartland values" and his own commitment to family likely did.
"I didn't get in this race because I am a lifetime politician," Romney said. "I've only been in politics four years -- not long enough to get badly infected. I'm in his race because of five sons, five daughters-in-law, eleven grandkids, a wife I love and Americans I've met across this land."
Even as Romney covered other bases -- taxes, national defense and the necessity of following "the course Ronald Reagan outlined" -- he circled around again and again to the "family values" theme. Outlining how he intends to achieve his "pretty straight forward" foreign policy goal of keeping America "the strongest nation in the world," Romney put the military at the end of his list. ("We do it with strong homes and families and values, we do it with a strong economy and then we also invest in our military to protect ourselves.") Romney prefaced his plan to strengthen the economy, kill the death tax and fight spending with an acknowledgment, to great applause, that, "The most important work that goes on in America is the work that goes on within the four walls of the home."
It's a variation on the three-legged stool speech, a Romney stump standby wherein the former Massachusetts governor posits the conservative movement, in his view, is based on the trifecta of a "strong military, strong economy and strong family." (Occasionally, Romney even breaks a stool for emphasis.) Romney has become more enamored of this particular "family" leg since Mike Huckabee became intent on prying it off his stool. The concern is real: "Do something people don't expect," Romney pleaded at one point, "which is give me a victory."
Fiscal conservatives such as I no doubt wish Romney would let his inner business master off its leash more often and speak to the competency and foresight that allowed him to help successfully launch national mainstays such as Staples, Domino's and Sports Authority in the mid-nineties. Romney can dazzle and inspire when he touches on the historical "inflection points" he sees ahead or muses about the shift to a philosophy of inalienable rights ("the citizen became the sovereign and the state became the servant and that, as they say, has made all the difference"). Unfortunately, these days those once integral flourishes are all too brief asides. Romney, frankly, is better than the box he's placed himself into for the primaries, something that will become apparent should he make it to the general election.
Nevertheless, perhaps more on his game than at any time since he began his run, Romney delivered this "values" speech with near-flawless timing and pacing, as well as real verve...Only to be shown up by his wife, Ann. Showcasing a grace and authenticity which can only indicate either an Oscar-worthy performance or a complete lack of political pretense, the woman Mitt introduced as "My sweetheart, the boss" imbued the typical, trite sappy stuff ("We met in high school. There's not much I don't know about this guy") with warmth, but truly shined as she delved into her "dark days" after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998.
"I remember this one point when I had about given up and felt like my life was over, that I was going to pretty much just be an invalid for the rest of my life," she recounted quietly, pausing to glance back at her husband. "Him looking at me and saying, 'You know what? I don't care if you're in a wheelchair. I don't care if you never make dinner again' -- I was moaning about how difficult it was for me to do things -- 'I'll eat cereal for the rest of my life, but together, we'll be okay.' And that gave me the courage to go on and to battle."
THERE ARE MOMENTS WHEN Romney takes the "family" theme a bit too far. Lines such as, "We will always remain the strongest nation on earth as long as we have leaders that will tell us the truth, who lay out the pathway we have to follow," for example, can sound disconcertingly as if he's running for National Daddy. The Massachusetts health insurance mandate doesn't reassure, although a Romney pamphlet argues it was an example of Conservative Ideas in Action. "Washington politicians make promises..." it reads, "Mitt Romney gets it done." Similarly, planning Ann Romney's First Ladydom, Mitt promised she would "speak to people who carry a burden."
"You recall, in the case of Nancy Reagan, she made 'Just Say No to Drugs' her theme," Mitt elaborated. "And the Bush first ladies have both focused on reading. Well, Ann's going to help kids make good decisions, staying off of drugs and finishing high school and getting married before kids and before babies."
So it really does take a village?
Aside from a couple of swipes at Hillary Clinton, Romney sheathed his political knife on stage. He kept things general, avoiding the overt assaults on illegal immigration and gay marriage that oftentimes feel strident and mean-spirited. Out in the foyer, however, the Romney campaign literature was considerably more barbed. A full-color oversized brochure asked, "Have you joined Mitt Romney's Iowa Marriage Task Force?" before reminding readers inside who hasn't joined. Specifically, Mike Huckabee ("Supports Civil Unions") and Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson ("Opposes Federal Marriage Amendment"). Another piece attacks the Log Cabin Republicans ("a pro-gay marriage political organization") before declaring, "Mitt Romney has done more to protect traditional marriage than any other candidate for President, Republican or Democrat."
AS MITT ROMNEY SIGNED autographs and snapped pictures with a seemingly never ebbing deluge of supporters for more than forty minutes, American Conservative Union President David Keane kept a low profile off to the side of the stage, but smiled widely, clearly pleased with the enthusiasm before him.
"Tonight leads me to believe I did the right thing," Keane said, alluding to his recent endorsement of Romney. "At times in the past Romney has seemed more like the management consultant working to sell the candidate than the guy actually running on feeling and conviction. Tonight we saw a man with feeling and conviction that could connect with people in a very real way."
Keane, in Iowa primarily to share his wealth of accumulated campaign knowledge with Romney precinct captains and caucus organizers, soon seemed validated by the scores of "commitment cards" quickly piling up in Romney staffers' hands.
"I might have been leaning toward Mitt before this, but I definitely wasn't committed," Jennifer Hovis said, as she jotted her personal information down on one such card, providing the Romney campaign the tools, should it be necessary, to wrangle her on caucus day. "Seeing him in person just solidified everything for me, though. I've heard the complaints and the other candidates are nice and all, but Mitt just has a wonderful spirit. I trust him."
A few paces over a middle-aged man asked, "Is there enough to go around or should I grab a sign now?"
"We've got thousands of them so..." the staffer answered, trailing off as the man nodded and plunged into the fray of autograph seekers and well-wishers.
This scene represented the absolute best case scenario for Romney. The question then becomes how many undecided voters' hearts did the former Massachusetts governor turn his way standing before those bright red poinsettias that night? And in front of how many other wavering voters can he perform this well over the next two weeks?
Time is of the essence, in other words. And what Romney probably wants most for Christmas -- cue Mike Huckabee innocently wondering aloud whether Mormons celebrate Christ's birth -- is a few more holiday parties.
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