The proverbial "electricity" was palpable in the crowd at the Pensacola Civic Center on Saturday, but candidate Mitt Romney was talking about electricity of another kind. Romney, a onetime Boy Scout leader, was speaking about a major national Scout ceremony from years ago in which a Scout leader from Monument, Colorado, was telling a story while he, Romney, was there on the dais.
The Monument scouts had created a special American flag (with gold trim, or something like that), had it flown at the U.S. Capitol, and then somehow convinced NASA to send it on a space shuttle. The shuttle was the Challenger; the flight was in 1986.
Lo and behold, after many months of random discoveries of debris from the tragically exploded Challenger, somebody actually found the Monument flag, and NASA returned it to the Scouts in Colorado. The flag, amazingly enough, remained in perfect condition. And the Scout leader unveiled it at the ceremony -- and then handed it to Romney.
"I touched it," Romney told the Pensacola crowd, "and it was as if electricity was running through my arm."
The way Romney told the story was masterful. The hyper-enthusiastic audience, 12,000 strong, was suddenly completely hushed. And Romney continued to weave this story, this moving, true story, into a broader narrative, quite seamlessly, about heroes and honor and big ideals -- a story told in the context of honoring heroes like the Navy pilots based there in "a city of heroes," Pensacola, and those pilots who had been based there in the past, like a man named John McCain. And Romney suddenly was quoting, perfectly, a lesser-known verse of "America the Beautiful," the one that goes "O beautiful, for heroes proved, in liberating strife, Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life."
Romney continued: "This is who we are as a people…. We live for things beyond ourselves."
None of this speech seemed awkward or canned. None of it seemed forced. Every single bit of it rang true, and flowed naturally and conversationally, a testimony from the heart.
My wife, a tough critic of political speeches, agreed with me: Never, ever, had either one of us seen Romney like this -- not this effective, not this genuine, not this naturally inspirational.
It wasn't just the crowd's enthusiasm that was electric, and it wasn't just the sensation the Monument flag sent through Romney's arm that was electric; Romney himself was electric, in the very best way -- a source of energy and of what certainly seemed like light, coming from a candidate I've often in the past derided as stiff and awkward and overly postured. In Pensacola on October 27, 2012, Mitt Romney was electric, and he exuded warmth. He was slipping the surly bonds of politics, touching something truer.
He did it amidst a crowd that exuded a vibe the likes of which I haven't felt since Ronald Reagan was around. Oh, it still wasn't quite Reaganesque, but it was wonderfully close to it. This crowd really seemed to have taken Mitt Romney to its heart; the feeling wasn't so much visceral as it was embracing. There was a sense of welcome and warm energy, somewhat like that which Reagan inspired, rather than of the more virulently animal spirits that sometimes mar political gatherings.
In turn, Romney seemed remarkably at ease, his delivery fluent and eminently real. Again and again, in a natural and unforced way, he worked local references into the narrative arc of his speech on big, decidedly national issues such as military spending, trade, and Obamacare. (Without breaking a sweat, he also managed the politically effective feat of working in references to people in other places -- Monument; and Waukesha, Wisconsin; and New Hampshire -- that just so happen to be swing states.) And his speech had the right cadences, too: Most of it easy and conversational prose, but with just the right amount of obviously prepared sound bites that were semi-catchy without being ostentatious, with just enough of a "speechified" feel to keep the audience's attention.
Barack Obama, said Romney, "is out of ideas, he's out of excuses, and this November we're gonna put him out of office." American needs to make "big choices, with big consequences, which is why this is a big election." And so on. Nothing brilliant. But quite obviously effective.
This was a candidate not just "hitting his stride," but rather one elevating his own game and elevating the entire campaign's sense of what American aspirations should be. Gov. Romney suddenly has the look and feel both of a winner and, more importantly, of a true leader, worthy of the nation he would serve. Turn on the lights; the good work is just beginning.