REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio -- Even while liberals were telling themselves that Mitt Romney had made a "risky" or even "disastrous" choice in picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, America got a rather startling reminder that President Obama's running mate isn't exactly a model of rhetorical responsibility. Romney spent Tuesday speaking to large and enthusiastic crowds in Ohio, on the same day Vice President Joe Biden was in Virginia committing one of the most remarkable blunders in campaign history. Speaking to a largely black audience of Democrats in Danville, Biden said that Romney's policies would "put y'all back in chains."
Biden's notorious history of gaffes -- he once asked a paraplegic Democrat to stand up at a campaign event -- immediately led most political observers to assume that this was another classic "There Goes Joe" moment. However, when the Obama campaign refused to disavow Biden's comment, the suspicion grew that the remark was a deliberate, officially-approved provocation. "A slavery metaphor aimed squarely at black listeners," as Hot Air blogger Allahpundit called it, intended to demonize the Romney-Ryan ticket and inflame racial hostility toward the Republicans.
A few hours after Biden's Virginia speech, Romney rolled into Zanesville, Ohio, for a brief campaign stop at an ice-cream parlor. Eric Fehrnstrom, one the Massachusetts governor's top strategists, shook his head in astonishment when asked about the "chains" accusation. "Outrageous," he said. "It just goes to show you when the Obama campaign gets in a scrape, they scrape the bottom."
Noting that a pro-Obama super-PAC ad recently accused Romney of causing a woman to die from cancer, Fehrnstrom said that "the more desperate" the Democrats get, the more they "ratchet up the rhetoric." Fehrnstrom said the Obama campaign had a reason to be desperate: Two national tracking polls -- from Gallup and Rasmussen -- released Tuesday showed Romney moving ahead, evidently boosted by the addition of Ryan to the GOP ticket. If Biden's remark was indeed evidence of the Obama campaign's "desperate" effort to boost black turnout, it might be because other traditionally Democratic constituencies may not be excited about re-electing Obama.
Romney began his Ohio tour Tuesday with a rally at a coal mine in Beallsville, highlighting the coal industry's importance to the local economy -- and the hostility of the president's policies toward that industry. Hundreds of muscular miners in hardhats, wearing stickers with the slogan "Stop Obama's War on Coal," cheered and applauded Romney as he asked a rhetorical question, "We have 250 years of coal, why the heck wouldn't we use it?" Near the West Virginia state line, Beallsville is in Monroe County, which Obama carried by nine points over Republican John McCain in 2008, but the Democratic administration's energy and environmental policies have estranged many miners and their families. Even the United Mine Workers, the union once bossed by current AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka, has hesitated to endorse Obama this year. Referring to the administration's plans to limit coal-fired electrical power plants, the UMW's spokesman told the Washington Times, "Our members aren't stupid… they see what this means,"
From Beallsville, the Romney bus rolled on to Zanesville for an event that highlighted the GOP candidate's support for small businesses like Tom's Ice Cream Bowl. It gave the Republican another chance to jab at Obama's derision of entrepreneurial independence. Romney's rebuttal -- "You did build that!" -- has become one of the biggest applause lines of his speeches in recent weeks.
Mitt may have been jabbing in Zanesville, but he saved his heaviest punches for the final stop of his Ohio trip. Apparently, Biden's "chains" remark had an unintended consequence: It offended Romney, producing a transformation that was somewhat like watching the mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner turn into the Incredible Hulk. Romney arrived to a hero's welcome in Chillicothe, where he was greeted by a pumped-up Republican crowd estimated at 5,000 or more. He did not disappoint them, delivering a fiery speech that took direct aim at the Democrats' increasingly divisive campaign tactics.
"This is an election in which we should be talking about the path ahead," Romney told the crowd in front of the Ross County Courthouse, "but you don't hear any answers coming from President Obama's re-election campaign. That's because he's intellectually exhausted, out of ideas, and out of energy. And so his campaign has resorted to diversions and distractions, to demagoguing and defaming others. This is an old game in politics; what's different this year is that the president is taking things to a new low."
Romney accused the Obama campaign of making "wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the Presidency," specifically referring to the "outrageous charge [that] came a few hours ago in Virginia.… This is what an angry and desperate Presidency looks like. President Obama knows better, he promised better and America deserves better."
The crowd erupted in cheers, and Romney continued: "Over the last four years, this President has pushed Republicans and Democrats as far apart as they can go. And now he and his allies are pushing us all even further apart by dividing us into groups. He demonizes some. He panders to others. His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then cobble together 51 percent of the pieces.
"If an American president wins that way, we all lose," Romney said, pausing slightly before adding: "But he won't win that way."
That elicited another huge cheer from the Chillicothe crowd, and Romney then invoked the words of the Pledge of Allegiance -- "America is one nation under God" -- building up a patriotic call to unity that referred to "monuments that list those who have given their lives," and leading into the harshest rebuke of all: "Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America."
Romney continued from there outlining his own plans and policies, and ended by reminding his Ohio audience that there were just 84 days -- twelve weeks -- remaining until Election Day. He urged them to talk to their friends and neighbors, to help persuade them to vote Republican in November, in what is almost certain once more to be the decisive battleground state. "One more vote can make the difference in Ohio," Romney said. "And Ohio will make the difference for America."