Romney’s Finale: A Presidential Contender Makes His Stand

For 523 days, Romney ran a staid and precise presidential campaign. But he decided to end it with a party.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Mitt Romney campaigns in West Chester, Ohio on Nov. 2, 2012

Manchester, N.H.

It’s a Mitt Romney rally like you’ve never seen. Grandparents waved glow sticks, teenagers did the wave, plumes of smoke wafted over the thundering crowd and Kid Rock cavorted atop a piano under a laser light show. For 523 days, Romney ran a staid and precise presidential campaign. He decided to end it with a party.

On the last full day of his campaign, with the presidency nearly within his grasp, Romney punctuated a 17-month slog with a raucous rally at a packed arena in his adopted home state of New Hampshire. After pausing to soak in the scene, he asked the same voters who first put him on the path toward the Oval Office for their vote once again. “Tomorrow we begin a new tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow is a moment to look into the future and imagine what we can do.”

The valedictory marked the end of a grueling 18-hour campaign swing, five stops scattered across a quartet of pivotal states. He began the morning in fog-shrouded Sanford, Fla., on the outskirts of Orlando. Then it was on to Virginia, where he dropped into Lynchburg, one of the commonwealth’s conservative strongholds. In Fairfax, fans packed the bleachers of George Mason University’s basketball court, while an overflow audience of several thousand more gathered in the fading light on a grassy slope outside, singing the Temptations’ hit “My Girl,” with Romney’s surname swapped in for the titular chorus.

(PHOTOS: Last Days on the Road with Romney)

“I am looking around to see if we have the Beatles here or something,” Romney said, basking in the adulation, “but it looks like you came just for the campaign, and I appreciate it.” After nightfall, thousands packed a cavernous airplane hangar in Columbus open to the November chill. When Romney’s plane taxied in to the soaring theme of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” they unleashed an earsplitting roar.

The decision to finish in New Hampshire offered fitting symmetry; it was here that Romney kicked off his campaign a year and a half ago, with a richly choreographed announcement speech on a Stratham farm, all fluttering flags and windblown hair. Romney jumped into the race as the frontrunner, and befitting the role, he ran a campaign light on policy detail and heavy on patriotic platitudes, with nutrient-free stump speeches. Rivals ran against Romney’s apostasies as much as on their own records. He won a long, bruising primary without ever seeming to win the party’s heart, then found himself on defense again for much of a general election his campaign expected to take shape as a referendum on Obama’s first term.

At the very end of his undertaking, Romney was no longer fretting about losing votes, but fighting for every last one. His closing argument, delivered in a hoarse voice, was an unabashed appropriation of Obama’s time-tested themes of post-partisanship and change. One supporter even toted an image of Romney rendered in the Shepard Fairey-style made famous during Obam’s historic 2008 run. “I learned as governor of Massachusetts that the best achievements are shared achievements. I learned respect and good will go a long way, and are usually returned in kind,” Romney said.

(MORE: Romney Begins Final Campaign Swing with Big Promises in Florida)

But these unifying sentiments were delivered with a heaping of red-meat digs at Obama’s “liberal agenda.” In Columbus, supporters behind Romney hoisted bright orange signs bearing the legend “Defend Freedom: Defeat Obama;” others carried placards that read “Vote for Love of Country,” invoking Romney’s retort to Obama’s offhand statement that “voting is the best revenge.” The charged slogans were reminders of the line Romney has had to tiptoe, between courting independents and slaking conservatives’ thirst for a candidate who channels their rage at the president.

Long billed as the last rally of the race, the Manchester stop won’t be the final event. On Monday, Romney aides said he would travel on Election Day to Ohio and Pennsylvania, visiting Cleveland and Pittsburgh in a last-ditch gambit to wring every vote out of a pair of states that may stand between Romney and the Oval Office.

Faced with public polls that show a slim but stubborn Obama lead in the bulk of the swing states that will decide the race, Romney’s advisers summoned cautious optimism. On the record, they predicted victory (although what else would they say?). Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist, said his boss wasn’t nervous, but rather “eager to lead the country.” His supporters are undeterred; at the Columbus rally, many clung to placards bearing the legend OHIO BELIEVES, passed out by members of Romney’s advance staff.

(PHOTOS: The 2012 Presidential Election Year in Pictures)

If his fans are running on faith, Romney seemed at points to be running on fumes. At his first two events Monday, he looked worn out, stumbling over small turns of phrase even as he rattled off a familiar speech from twin teleprompters before modest crowds.

George Romney, Mitt’s father and idol, was know for his persistence — an attribute he used to win over his wife and climb to the top rung of corporate America without a college degree. His son inherited the trait. He has spent innumerable days trekking through the corn fields of Iowa and the VFW halls of New Hampshire and swing suburbs of Ohio, living out of hotel rooms and airplanes, in dogged pursuit of the world’s highest office. “I need your vote,” he said in New Hampshire. “Walk with me.”

As the clock ticked toward midnight, Romney gazed out at the crowd. Unlike Obama, who teared up at his last rally in Des Moines on Monday night, the Republican nominee — a private man under the world’s brightest spotlight — never quite let his emotions peek through. Not even on the brink of history. His final words were drowned out by the roar of the crowd.

MORE: Past Is Prologue in Presidential Race’s Closing Arguments