Mitt Romney loves America.
Not just the land but the word. It dominates his speeches, appearing in some form 50 times in an address to veterans Tuesday in Nevada. Romney's campaign slogan is Believe in America. On the stump, he sings America the Beautiful.
But amid the rallying call to a weary nation, Romney has been drawing a parallel portrait of President Barack Obama as someone who does not share, understand or believe in core American values. In speech after speech, Romney seems to be blowing a dog whistle: He is not one of us.
The subtle effort seeks to define Obama as out of touch and to raise doubts among voters who fear the country is on the decline. If voters believe Obama shares different values, then it's easier to believe he is leading the country to ruin.
In broad ways, it is a classic campaign strategy, and Obama is working his own "I'm more like you" angle along class lines. Romney's strategy, however, must contend with the tripwires of race and religion that still surround Obama nearly four years after he became America's first black president.
Romney is proceeding carefully, but his persistent and effusive patriotism has raised questions about whether he and his allies are playing to — or at least benefiting from — discredited notions about Obama.
"The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it's not the best America can do," Romney said in Manchester, N.H., on April 24. "We know that this election is about the kind of America we will live in and the kind of America we will leave to future generations. When it comes to the character of America, President Obama and I have very different visions."
In St. Louis on June 7, Romney said, "President Obama is transforming America into something very different than the land of the free and the land of opportunity. We know where that transformation leads. There are other nations that have chosen that path."
Romney has said Obama "doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do," has "changed the very fabric of our land," has led "an assault on American values," and believes "America's role as the leader of the world is a thing of the past."
And on the same day this month that Romney surrogate John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire, said he wished Obama would "learn how to be an American," Romney told a crowd near Pittsburgh that Obama's course is "extraordinarily foreign."
"He's got to walk a line, and I think he's chosen an overarching narrative that allows him to do that," said Charlton McIlwain, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.
"No one's going to question playing to American strength. When you put the subtle contrast in there, it's easily explained away should anyone say they are talking about race or nationality or religious differences. They can make some of these inferences but be safe."
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Romney's campaign, which declined to comment for this story, has portrayed the contrast as between two philosophies, one where government is dominant and one where it gets out of the way.
"I don't think he is doing anything more than pointing out that he is the center-right candidate, that his views are much more in tune with the majority of the country," said Chriss Winston, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. "Barack Obama has a leftist point of view and it is in that sense he's different."
Al Cardenas, a top Republican from Florida who is close to Romney, said the frustration with Obama extends to perceived snubs of the country's allies and soft stances toward adversaries. He said it would be a "sure loser" for Romney to stir questions about Obama's background.
"I can assure you from Romney's standpoint it's a nonstarter," Cardenas said. "That doesn't mean nonaffiliated groups may have their own agenda and rhetoric, but Romney has taken steps to distance himself from that."
Obama is drawing his own inferences.
His attacks on Romney's background in private equity and the riches that has brought him are designed to show Romney as effectively foreign to the experience of ordinary Americans. A snarky TV ad in heavy rotation features Romney singing an off-key version of America the Beautiful in Florida while news headlines flash across the screen saying businesses Romney invested in shipped jobs overseas and that he once had a Swiss bank account. Another Obama ad asks, "What is Mitt Romney hiding?" Obama's ads geared toward Hispanic voters paint Romney as insensitive given his hard-line positions on immigration.
Patriotism is hardly novel on the campaign trail, though Romney seems to be setting a new bar. "I love all the amendments!" he gushed last year in New Hampshire. He likes to tell a story of a boyhood road trip with his parents to the national parks. "I fell in love with the land in America," he said in Florida in January.
Though he does not discuss his Mormon faith often, Romney draws some of his intense patriotism from it.
"Love of America, they believe, stretches beyond appreciation and gratitude. It is theological, prescribed in holy writ," Peggy Fletcher Stack, who covers religion for the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote this month. "Latter-day Saints also regard the U.S. Constitution as an inspired document and the nation's founding as a pivotal step in the unfolding of God's plan to restore true Christianity to the Earth."
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Questioning a rival's patriotism is a time-honored campaign tactic that Republicans have mastered since the Cold War, suggesting Democrats were soft on communism.
In the 1988 presidential campaign, Bush sought to excite conservatives by attacking former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for vetoing legislation requiring teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance. Four years later Bush went after Bill Clinton for protesting the Vietnam War while studying in England.
"In 2008, Obama turned the tables," said David Greenberg, a history and journalism professor at Rutgers University. "He equated his own personal career success with patriotism. Only in America, he said, could the son of a Kansan and a Kenyan rise so high. Making him president would prove America's ability to overcome racism. Voting for him was in effect an act of patriotism. It was brilliantly played."
But nearly four years later, race and religion still simmer. Polls show that many Americans still mistakenly think Obama is Muslim or are unsure of his faith; he is Christian. Critics, including Donald Trump, continue to assert that Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate is fake and that he was born in Kenya.
At an Obama event in Fort Myers this month, a large crowd of protesters showed up, some carrying signs saying Obama was a communist. Another implied he falsified college documents.
"I'm not sure he's an American," said Kelli Perkins, 45, who was among the crowd. Whatever the case, she said Obama does not share American ideas. "We're turning more and more socialist every day. I think he'd be happy to see the world go to a global government and he'd be king of the world."
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Romney has not questioned Obama's background or religion. Some observers, though, think his patriotism trades on those themes in an attempt to overcome doubts among conservatives.
"There's no question they are going to vote for Mitt Romney, but how many of them are going to do that?" said Jeff Shesol, a historian and former speechwriter for Clinton. "Mitt Romney has all sorts of trouble on the right. He was the 'Massachusetts moderate.' He's got to show these folks that he's one of them or if he's not one of them, he's closer than they had been led to believe. He's got to push every button."
If he's doing that, Romney recognizes limits. Going too far would risk a backlash and turn off moderates. And Romney has disavowed some of the harder edge rhetoric. As he began an overseas trip to London on Wednesday, a London newspaper quoted an unnamed Romney adviser as suggesting Obama did not understand the U.S.-Britain relationship because he lacks "Anglo-Saxon heritage." Romney's campaign said it was false.
"We have a very special relationship between the United States and Great Britain. It goes back to our very beginnings, cultural and historical," Romney told NBC News. "But I also believe the president understands that. So I don't agree with whoever that adviser might be."
On Thursday, Romney was back on track, suggesting Obama's insinuations about wealth were unpatriotic. "Dividing America based on who has money and who hasn't — who is successful and who is less successful," he told CNN in London.
"That is not the American way."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.