Main Street in Chillocothe looked like a movie set on Tuesday night. Fading light glinted off faded brick buildings, and floodlights bathed the steps of the picturesque Ross County courthouse where Mitt Romney spoke to 5,000 people. Romney’s bus rolled in to the soaring score from Rudy. If the comparison between a fabulously well-funded presidential candidate and an undersized walk-on linebacker wasn’t immediately apparent, it made more sense when Romney began lighting into his opponent. At the final stop of his four-day bus tour through a quintet of battleground states, Romney painted his campaign as the heroic attempt to topple a powerful and divisive President.
It was the most searing speech of Romney’s entire presidential campaign, a head-snapping amalgam of high-minded rhetoric and blistering take-downs. “This is election is about restoring the promise of America,” Romney said. “It’s a choice between two visions for our nation’s future.” Moments later, he was assailing Obama for running a campaign of cynicism designed to mask his alleged failures. “He demonizes some. He panders to others,” Romney said. “His campaign strategy is to smash American apart and then to try to cobble together 51% of the pieces.”
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Campaigning across Ohio on Tuesday, Romney tried to cushion devastating criticism of Obama with the promise to wage a campaign of ideas. It’s a promise he’s made to every audience since Paul Ryan, the trademarked idea man, joined the GOP ticket Saturday morning. But the five proposals Romney touts as a way to grow the economy and, he says, create 12 million by the end of his first term are already taking a backseat to easy applause lines.
At a Beallsville mine tucked into the lush rolling hills of western Appalachia, Romney on Tuesday morning accused Obama of lying to mask his contempt for the coal industry. By nightfall, he was castigating his opponent for slander, making an oblique reference to Vice President Joe Biden’s own over-the-top rhetoric. “This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like. He won’t win that way,” Romney said in Chillicothe.
At other points the presumptive GOP nominee cranked up the charm. Romney hobnobbed with Ohioans as he ate “White House”-flavored ice cream – vanilla with cherries – in a Zanesville ice-cream shop. He mingled with locals outside the First Church of God in rural Pickaway County and bought pizza for the press during an unscheduled stop at a Little Caesars.
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Cast as a chance to pitch his plan to strengthen the middle class, the bus tour quickly gave way to the theatrics and elaborate staging befitting a veep rollout. Romney’s crowds were bigger and louder. They even chanted his name as he whipped them into frenzies. For a moment, the selection of Ryan seemed like a sign that the two parties’ petty squabbles might be subsumed by an important debate over Medicare. The endless expanse of the presidential race finally seemed to be headed somewhere.
Nope. The fight over Medicare is underway, but it’s not going to be a sober and nuanced one. Romney tried to turn the tables on Obama Tuesday, telling audiences that the President had sliced $716 billion from Medicare to pay for a health-care law Republicans hate, then accused him of debasing American politics.
“He’s intellectually exchausted, out of ideas, and out of energy,” Romney said in Chillicothe. “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.” And: “Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago,” Romney said. “Let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”
The tail end of the line – the uplifting part – was drowned out by the roars of the crowd. It was a sign, perhaps, that hope and change are bygone themes. In this battered country, optimism is no match for bitterness.