The campaign bus rolled past the long lines of stalled traffic, the police officers sweating on corners and the protesters shaking signs and shouting into bullhorns. It passed under low gray clouds and news helicopters and men on rooftops bearing guns and binoculars, peering down on the trappings of presidential politics in early August 2012. Inside the bus, Mitt Romney, white shirt starched stiff, collar open, sleeves rolled to the elbows, stood and stepped forward. Beyond the giant windshield he saw the friendly crowd, hundreds of sweaty Floridians crammed into El Palacio de los Jugos, the palace of juices, standing on wobbly tables and clinging to stockade fences. They had walked through soupy South Florida and clouds of black flies to see him. They had waited hours, emptied their pockets and surged through metal detectors to shout for the man whose name stretched down the side of the bus in all-caps, just above BELIEVE IN AMERICA.
Romney needs dead-heat Florida desperately. If he doesn't win the Sunshine State in November, he should expect to place a late-night phone call to two-term President Barack Obama.
But his roots don't run deep in the Florida sand. He has been trying to change that, rushing around this 58,000-square-mile peninsula with its two time zones, 10 television markets, 19 million people and unbelievable sunsets. He has been kissing Cubans, polishing off roast pig and fishing for votes at fish shacks. That's why he was here in the nation's political hothouse, again.
Tonight, Romney will stride across the walnut stage of the Tampa Bay Times Forum to accept his party's nomination for president. His speech, delivered in the glare of the national spotlight, will be his most important Florida moment yet.
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Before the Presidency 5 straw poll last fall (which he lost), before the Republican primary (which he won), Mitt Romney showed up in Tallahassee. He walked into the office of Florida's chief financial officer.
Jeff Atwater had met Romney before briefly, but this time was different. Romney wanted to talk. Atwater had been through these kinds of courtships before. Candidates on the prowl, angling for support.
"So many people begin the conversation about the strategy of winning the election rather than about understanding the environment and the challenges so he could better serve Florida," Atwater said.
But Romney was different. He was curious. He asked Atwater about the state's financial challenges and what a president could do to help Florida diversify its economy.
"Normally, it's: Can you get that door open for me?" Atwater said. "Gov. Romney wanted to understand the issues of Florida."
Atwater, who knows about running for statewide office, was blown away.
"He was in a listening mode, a learning mode," Atwater said. "I don't know if I ever could have displayed that kind of patience and thoughtfulness with someone who I don't yet know is on my team."
Atwater said that Romney never even asked for his support.
"It's so rare," he said.
Atwater is not the only one who reads this as sincerity in Romney.
"I had the privilege of introducing him once," said Naples Mayor John Sorey a few days ago. "After the meeting, … he had to be somewhere else, but he took the time as he walked through the theater to speak with every individual who was there. Even the volunteer ushers. They aren't the leaders in our community, but he took the time to speak to each of those ladies, to shake their hands. I've had other candidates here who got off the bus, made their pitch, got back on the bus and left."
"Romney couldn't have been more gracious and more humble," said Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, 43, who hung out with Romney and actor Jon Voight at a pancake breakfast at the Fish House in January. "His knowledge of Pensacola was very deep. He knew we had the world's whitest beaches. He knew we were the first settlement in North America."
Since then, the Michigan-raised former governor of Massachusetts has been trying to make himself familiar in a state where many of his relationships are shallow and many of his experiences are limited or controversial.
As reported by the Tampa Bay Times in January, Romney's Bain Capital borrowed heavily to buy a medical device company that became Dade Behring, then shuttered its operations in Puerto Rico and Miami, costing a total of about 1,250 jobs and a $30 million payroll in the Miami community.
His fellow Republicans in the primaries launched arrows about the cut-throat business deals. GOP rival Newt Gingrich called it "exploitation." Romney's campaign would say only that Bain Capital invested in many businesses, and "while not every business was successful, the firm had an overall track record and created jobs with well-known companies like Staples, Dominos and Sports Authority."
Delving into Romney's written history doesn't turn up Sunshine State surprises either. Florida isn't mentioned in The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, reporters for the Boston Globe. The country's fourth-largest and most politically unpredictable state isn't mentioned in Romney's book, No Apology, either. He writes about South Korea, but not Sarasota. Tibet, but not Tallahassee.
• • •
Since he launched his campaign in June 2011 (on a farm in New Hampshire), Romney has drastically improved his record in Florida, a state he lost to John McCain four years ago.
Before the Florida primary, many voters were not convinced that Romney was the best Republican candidate. But when he won the state with 46 percent of the vote, the hesitation began to fade. He walked away from one short May fundraiser at Tampa's Avila Golf and Country Club with $2.3 million. Donors had paid $2,500, $10,000 or $50,000 each for a private lunch with Romney.
By June, he had held more than 50 events in Florida.
"It's always a beautiful day in the Villages," he told the Villagers.
"I'm having fun in Florida," he told Naples retirees in polo shirts and Tommy Bahama shorts.
"The president has failed Florida," he told about 150 people outside a foreclosed home in Lehigh Acres.
"He's a much sharper candidate than he was four years ago," said Sen. Marco Rubio.
That's important for the campaign of a man often criticized as robotic because those face-to-face encounters work far better than mailers or advertising on TV. So do encounters with a candidate's representative, such as Ann Romney, who has been campaigning in Florida as well.
"The most effective tool in persuading voters is in-person contact with the candidate," said Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, associate professor of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
The conventions can also be useful, she said, even if the audience has gradually declined.
"This convention is when those swing voters will start to tune in," she said.
That helps explain the significance of holding the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, the top battleground region in the biggest battleground state. Several political theorists have gone so far as to say the president is picked by a few square blocks in Tampa.
But hosting here is risky for Romney, too. Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that "the single most powerful predictor of presidential election outcomes is how smoothly the parties' conventions run." Disruptive conventions show party divisions and taint the party in the eyes of the electorate.
Already we've witnessed discord in Tampa. Half of the delegates from Maine, who had announced their support for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, had their credentials yanked by the Republican National Committee.
That was a passing squall compared with the disruption caused by Isaac, which forced a one-day delay of the convention before battering an already skittish New Orleans on the first night of speeches. But protests have been mild and arrests almost nonexistent, sparing organizers the distraction of unrest outside the convention hall.
If Romney wants to convince voters in Florida and beyond, tonight's his best chance.
• • •
At El Palacio de los Jugos, Romney stepped off the air-conditioned bus and climbed the stage. He asked his son Craig to say a few words in Spanish. The crowd cheered.
When Romney returned to the microphone, the folks in the back couldn't hear what he was saying. He could've been talking about the Marlins' bullpen, but when those in the front cheered, the people in the back did, too. This was a crowd he needed to motivate, not convince.
Before long, he began to sweat. It started as a sheen on his forehead, but as he talked he perspired more, until drops ran down his face. When he finished and began shaking hands and kissing cheeks, he was a sweaty mess, no longer stiff, no longer starched.
He finally looked like a Floridian.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.