The weather did no favors for birthday boy Mitt Romney Monday morning in Mobile, Alabama. Romney may have done himself no favors, either. But that isn't much below par for the course: Oddly enough, despite the frenetic campaign activity by three presidential campaigns in the Gulf Coast states before Tuesday's primaries, none of them seems to be hitting on all cylinders.
After my coverage of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich last week, I looked forward to completing the troika when Romney appeared at a Mobile diner called the "Whistle Stop" for what was billed as a 6:45 a.m. breakfast appearance. But there wasn't much to cover.
The morning was noticeably overcast and intermittently drizzly. Romney was inside with some pre-selected locals doing a Fox News appearance. Outside in the parking lot, some 200 members of the public, plus a gaggle of local and national media, waited for Romney's speech. And waited. And waited. Fox apparently took precedence. At about 7:15, Ann Romney came out to say her husband would be out soon. They knew it was important to do it soon, she said, because they were looking at weather forecasts and were afraid everyone would get drenched.
Then she made her mini-pitch for her husband. It amounted to this: "He's gonna win anyway, so you should help him win."
Actually, what she said was this: "It is more and more clear that Mitt is going to be the nominee of the party." And it's important, because "I know women, and women are talking about the economy. They are mad. I am mad." They are all mad about the debt that Barack Obama is leaving as a "burden on our children." Her husband understands this. That's why he'll be out in a minute to tell you about why he should win the race we all know he is going to win.
Alas, after about 10 more Mitt-less minutes (with a brief cameo by comedian Jeff Foxworthy, speaking for about 90 seconds on Romney's behalf), the feared downpour arrived. It was a gully-washer. Huge sheets of rain swept down on the crowd and within about two minutes the parking lot was full of puddles and/or little rivulets of water rushing toward the nearest drains. The Secret Service, which had previously kept people from seeking shelter under the awnings of the diner and its neighboring businesses, relented, and everybody who could do so crowded under the overhangs while others huddled under umbrellas that kept heads dry but couldn't possibly keep shoes and legs from getting drenched.
Suddenly, at about 7:34, Romney's voice emerged over a loudspeaker. He had come out under the overhang, too. Some people even said they could see his forehead. The candidate launched right in.
"About three and a half years ago, the voters sent a message to Washington. I think it is time to send a president to Washington."
Obama doesn't understand the economy, said Romney, "but I understand this economy because I've actually had a job in this economy. We need somebody who actually has run something, who understands it. I have had businesses and fixed them. I have gone to the Olympics and fixed them. But this president is out of ideas and out of experience. Now we're going to make sure he is out of a job."
By this time, the nine minutes or so of downpour had slowed again to a more gentle rain. Everybody who was there outside had already gotten drenched. Romney so far had spoken for just three minutes.
"You know, I was in Mississippi yesterday and had some catfish for just the second time in my life," he said, apropos of nothing. "It was just as good as the first time." And now it was good to be next door in Alabama, where he really hoped people would support him. "You guys can all help by voting multiple times," he said, then paused as if expecting some laughs that never came.
"Anyway, I don't want to make you keep getting wet [by then, the rain was back to intermittent drizzle], so I'll cut it off here. Thanks for coming."
It was 7:38. The big event was over. It's tough to fight Mother Nature.
Then again, despite careening across both Alabama and Mississippi at a pace that would wear most mortals to a frazzle, none of the three major campaigns are finding a groove. The Santorum ads don't match his strong message of "freedom" that the former senator emphasized Thursday night and that the Wall Street Journal's Dan Henninger praised earlier that day. And Santorum hasn't done much to localize national issues, nor to try to gin up a "bandwagon" feeling to build on his huge win in Kansas.
Gingrich events are erratic, with some relative hits and some weak misses. He sounds okay, but looks pale and tired, adding to the sense that he is now no more than a spoiler in the race, completely unable to win the nomination himself but unwilling to admit that he is helping Romney by splitting the "not-Mitt" vote.
Romney, meanwhile, is easily winning the ad war, where he finally has added some positive and effective "soft" spots (about helping a man find his missing daughter) to his far more common spate of harsh attacks -- but his personal discomfort in the South is almost cringe-inducing. He said in public he feels like he is at "an away game." He sounded surprised to have actually liked "cheesy grits." (They are called "cheese grits," not "cheesy.") And now Alabamians should support him because he likes Mississippi catfish as much the second time as he did the first time -- however much that is, which he didn't actually make clear.
Meanwhile, very few other signs of the campaigns are visible -- literally. My wife and I drove around vast portions of the southern half of Mobile County and the city itself on Sunday, and saw not a single Gingrich yard sign, not a single Romney sign, and only about three or four Santorum signs on private property plus several at various public crossings.
It's easy for people to underestimate the challenges of running a lengthy primary-season campaign while living hand-to-mouth for campaign funds and putting together public appearances on the fly. This column is not meant as criticism, but as pure observation: The process is brutal, and campaign officials get almost no breaks -- no weekends off, precious little sleep, and very little time to plan events, much less messages, in advance.
So who's going to win today? Gingrich has the home-field advantage with years of building political relationships in these two states; Romney has the establishment and the money-bought airwaves… and Santorum is scrambling to take advantage of any openings he can find. Local endorsements, like the one that came out Monday (in a private capacity, not as a university stance) from Mark Foley, respected president of the Baptist-affiliated University of Mobile, might help Santorum make up for the lack of other advantages. (Disclosure: I have a "writer-in-residence" affiliation with the university.)
In short, it's anybody's guess how it could turn out, with the smart money being on narrow wins for either Romney or Gingrich, but with Santorum needing only a last burst of speed to pass them.