Romney dodges Rendell rally

Mitt Romney shakes hands and orders a sandwich at a Quakertown Wawa. The candidate's small-town bus tour brought him to Bucks County, but the presence of 250 protesters at his scheduled stop chased him to a different store.
Mitt Romney shakes hands and orders a sandwich at a Quakertown Wawa. The candidate's small-town bus tour brought him to Bucks County, but the presence of 250 protesters at his scheduled stop chased him to a different store. (EVAN VUCCI / AP)
Posted: June 18, 2012

Mitt Romney's small-town bus tour of swing states rolled across Pennsylvania on Saturday, allowing the Republican presidential candidate to campaign as the champion of the middle class in picturesque, everyday American settings.

But first Romney dodged a group of about 250 Democratic protesters, led by former Gov. Ed Rendell, by diverting from a scheduled stop at a Quakertown Wawa to another Wawa three miles away. The abrupt schedule change gave a taste of the fight ahead in what is likely to be a close presidential campaign, where every move is contested by one side or the other.

"I understand I had a surrogate over there already, so we decided to pick a different place," Romney joked, referring to Rendell, who backs President Obama but has criticized the incumbent and has said Romney has a chance to win the state.

In an interview aboard his campaign bus, Romney said he plans to run full-tilt in Pennsylvania, which has voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections.

"We're all in," he said, expressing confidence that his emphasis on the economy would overcome the drift of voters in the Philadelphia suburbs away from the GOP in national elections, due in part to the party's emphasis on social issues.

At the second Wawa, Romney ordered a meatball hoagie with pickles and sweet peppers - he asked for a "sub" but quickly switched to the regionally correct name - and greeted several dozen shoppers in the store, along with local supporters who got word of the change and rushed to show up.

Though brief, the visit was as close a thing as there is to a spontaneous campaign stop in the choreography of modern presidential politics. Many of the customers were surprised, and Romney posed for a photograph with a Little League baseball team.

After a rally in Cornwall, Lebanon County, Romney planned to fly to Ohio, where the tour will resume Sunday. It will go on to Wisconsin and Iowa, then wrap up Tuesday with several appearances in Michigan, Romney's native state, where recent polls have found him running even with the president.

Russ Schriefer, a Romney strategist, said the tour was meant to hit places that are "struggling in the Obama economy." The journey is also a test for a candidate who has been awkward on the stump at times, providing an opportunity for a wealthy man caricatured as out of touch to connect to middle-class voters.

Romney seemed relaxed Saturday, joking and buoyant. If he is to win Pennsylvania, strategists agree he will have to do better than the GOP's recent presidential nominees in Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, as well as Lehigh County just to the north of Quakertown. Moderate voters have tipped the balance to the Democrats in those counties that were former GOP redoubts, driven in part by the national Republican Party's move to the right on social issues and the dominance of religious conservatives in its ranks.

"You know, people of good faith line up on various issues in different ways, but one place where we typically come together is on needing good solid jobs with good wages," Romney said in the interview. "And I believe I can do a much better job of that than we've seen the president do over the last 31/2 years. . . . It will come down to who can do a better job getting this economy going."

Romney said his plan to reduce tax rates and remove burdensome regulation that impedes small business - starting with repeal of the Obama health-care program - would reignite the economy, along with increased production of domestic oil and natural gas and cutting deficit spending.

Obama has framed Romney's economic policy as a "retread" of the approach taken by George W. Bush.

In the interview, Romney differentiated himself from the last Republican president.

"Don't forget when President Bush was in office, then-Senator Obama said those deficits were un-American and counterproductive," Romney said. "Now that he's president, those deficits are twice as large as they were under President Bush. So I'm afraid that when it comes to the deficit . . . he's the one that's following those footsteps, not me."

Democrats say Romney policy would lead to severe cutbacks in federal spending, which would hurt programs and investments.

Another purpose of the bus tour is a continuation of Romney's auditioning of potential vice presidential running mates. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was riding along in Pennsylvania and was also along Friday for the New Hampshire kickoff. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, frequently mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, will be campaigning with Romney on Sunday, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is also scheduled.

Romney wrapped up the day Saturday with a rally at the landmark Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon County, a Republican stronghold 25 miles east of Harrisburg.

Several hundred supporters - some of whom got personal phone calls from the campaign inviting them - applauded Romney's promise to shrink government and grow business.

Appearing with the state's top elected Republicans, Sen. Pat Toomey and Gov. Corbett, Romney seized on Obama's "private sector is doing fine" line to underscore the difference in their philosophies.

"The economy's fine? People are having hard times across the country," Romney said. "His policies have not helped America get working again. I'm going to get this economy going again."

The message resonated with Kathy Meyer, a homemaker from Cornwall.

"I believe we need an alternative to the current president," said Meyer, wearing an "I can't afford 4 More" button. "We're middle class and not eligible for entitlements, but they're taking our money to support them."

Romney said Toomey, seen by some as a possible vice presidential candidate, was one of the "brightest people and thinkers in our party," but he passed on discussing the list of possible running mates. "As to people who I'm thinking about for VP, I got nothing for you," Romney said, laughing.

He also cleared up a long-standing mystery of campaign rhetoric: why he would often say that Michigan trees were "the right height" while campaigning in that state's primary.

"Go to Washington state - the trees there are at least 20 feet taller. Go to Utah, they're at least 20 feet shorter," Romney said. "Different parts of the country, but also it was just kind of, meant to be tongue in cheek. 'The green here is the same color.' "

And how do Pennsylvania's trees fare?

"Just fine," Romney said. Then he threw back his head and laughed.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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