October 08, 2012 at 7:32 am
By Jonathan Mattise
Treasure Coast Newspapers
TRADITION — After introductions from his wife, U.S. Rep. Allen West and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Mitt Romney made his case for the presidency Sunday in a county that helped win President Obama the White House four years ago.
At Tradition Town Square on a blazing-hot-turned-drizzly afternoon in Port St. Lucie, the former Massachusetts governor promised not to increase taxes on middle-class families. He said he wants to implement Florida’s school-grading policies on a national level, and let kids at failing schools switch their institutions. He pledged to take money given to federal job training agencies and hand it over to the states to spend on their own jobs programs.
But in a campaign pundits say has sounded more moderate of late, Romney also stressed he’s ready to work with the other party.
“I will do everything in my power to draw on that greatness of the American people, to make us more united as a people, to reach across the aisle and find good Democrats in the House and the Senate that care deeply about America, just as I do,” Romney said. “I know they’re there. I know they’ll work together if they have leadership that will actually work and share credit.”
Romney’s Port St. Lucie stop wrapped up a three-day Florida campaign tour. He spent Friday night in St. Petersburg and Saturday in Apopka.
Romney was bused to Port St. Lucie from Palm Beach International Airport and his motorcade arrived around 3 p.m. In a blue, checkered button-down shirt with his sleeves rolled up, he fired up the crowd of more than 10,000 by mentioning early how he enjoyed himself in last week’s Denver debate. The Romney fans poured out of a sectioned-off seating area and crammed down a side-street spillover area.
His speech carried familiar themes from the debate. Romney pounded on the importance of the middle class, mostly claiming Obama’s health care and tax policies are going to stifle working families. He said America needs to find more oil, coal and gas domestically.
The GOP presidential hopeful described first seeing his future wife Ann in elementary school. Romney’s wife then detailed her ties to the Treasure Coast, and said she spent winters in Stuart at her parents’ house. Her brother also lived there for 10 years, she said.
The who’s who list of politicians in attendance agreed Romney made a smart choice stopping in Port St. Lucie. Bondi, state Sen. Joe Negron, Florida CFO Jeff Atwater and West were among the speakers. Treasure Coast state House candidates Michelle Miller and MaryLynn Magar also took the stage.
Negron said it speaks volumes that Romney sacrificed the time to hit Port St. Lucie with just a month until the election. The Treasure Coast, and specifically St. Lucie County, could be make-or-break for Romney’s campaign, he said.
“(Romney) is here because the Treasure Coast and the I-4 corridor are the most important parts of Florida in this race,” said Negron, a Stuart Republican. “Port St. Lucie and the entire Treasure Coast are really going to be one the bellwether areas of the state that will determine the outcome.”
A Republican spokesman said it would be a game-changer to win St. Lucie, where Democrats have almost a 20,000-voter edge. Obama clinched the county in 2008 by 12 points.
“With the momentum and people understanding the clear choice of what they have moving forward, I think it would be a huge statement to carry this county in Florida,” said Tom Brandt, a Republican National Committee spokesman.
West, R-Palm Beach Gardens, exuded his usual national star persona. Wearing a “GO WEST” polo, the District 18 candidate signed autographs, shook hands, posed for photos and held someone’s son. He stuck to his familiar, fiery delivery on limited government, and cited what many called a debate win last week for Romney.
“What we saw on Wednesday night, was when the opportunity takes the stage with the dependency society, the opportunity society wins,” said West, who faces Democrat Patrick Murphy in November.
The appearance was West’s biggest role in the Romney campaign, after the retired lieutenant colonel only spoke in side stage appearances at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Experts have named District 18, which includes Martin, St. Lucie and northern Palm Beach counties, one of Florida’s biggest swing districts — a slight Republican voter edge, but a narrow win for Obama in 2008.
Instead of preaching to GOP strongholds in Martin or Indian River County, West said it was important for Romney to take his message to economically hard-hit Port St. Lucie. Romney has circled around St. Lucie so far, having held a campaign fundraiser at Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach before the primary and a reception in North Palm Beach last month.
“Take your message everywhere,” West said.
Though Romney didn’t specifically mention Port St. Lucie’s foreclosure issues, Atwater said the area needs an economic boost as much as any city nationwide.
“I think he came right to the right place,” Atwater said. “People of our community here have been hit as hard as any place in the country. I’m impressed he knew he had to come right here and say it.”
Obama campaign personalities, who showed up to present an opposing view, said Romney’s debate performance and his message Sunday don’t reflect his real intentions. They argue Romney’s plan would require raising middle-class taxes, and that Republican Medicare plans would increase premium costs for future seniors.
“I think Mitt Romney did an event in a place like Port St. Lucie to try to do the same thing he was doing in the debate last Wednesday night,” said James Roosevelt Jr., grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “And that is to walk away from his extreme conservative positions, not tell the truth about them, and try to reach out beyond his extreme tea party supporters.”
“I think Congressman Allen West is very indicative, just as Congressman Paul Ryan is, of what Mitt Romney really believes,” Roosevelt said.
… MORE FROM THE RALLY
‘Sea of people’ gratifies GOP organizer
By the end of the Romney rally, a light but steady rain combined with thousands of footsteps to turn the grassy infield of Tradition Square into a muddy soup. Bill Paterson didn’t demur when it was suggested the scene looked like a Republican Woodstock.
“I was there when I was 19,” said Paterson, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee of St. Lucie County. “I was the only sober one.”
But Paterson was elated Sunday by the view from his elevated place on the VIP platform.
“Looking out, I saw a sea of people,” Paterson said.
Later, Paterson said an aide to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi reported a head count of 16,000 people.
Paterson said he can’t ever be sure, but perhaps Mitt Romney included St. Lucie County as a campaign stop after Paterson’s wife, Julie, handed the candidate a business card at a political rally in Miami earlier this year. The Patersons also managed to get an open invitation to visit St. Lucie County through to the former Massachusetts governor that night.
Souvenirs celebrate GOP, knock the competition
Political rallies like Sunday’s in Port St. Lucie are followed across the country by vendors who sell buttons and T-shirts to the crowds. Among them was Al Harris, a college Republican from the University of Missouri — St. Louis.
Harris said buttons proclaiming “No for the O” and “I’d rather vote for a Mormon than a moron” were his best-sellers Sunday.
“Anything anti-Obama they want,” Harris said.
Another vendor, Tim Engelskirches of Charlotte, N.C., also was selling Romney buttons.
“I enjoy following the campaign and this pays for gas and motel rooms,” he said.
Tie-dyed interloper gives as good as he gets
At least one person appeared to be out of place at Sunday’s event: Marc Ryan of Traverse City, Mich., who calls himself Captain Tie-Dye, stuck out like a rainbow-colored sore thumb as he hawked Obama buttons to people waiting to pass through security.
“You wouldn’t believe the backlash I’m getting out here,” Ryan said.
At one point he yelled, “I’m a small-business man and you Republicans should support small business people.”