DAVENPORT, Iowa — Politics are a hard sell here in the “Quad Cities,” a group of five towns straddling the Mississippi River on the Iowa/Illinois border.
It may have been the hot blustery breeze off the water, or the time of day — 4 p.m. during the work week — but just a few hundred people showed up to hear presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney bring his message to the Midwest. Romney is on a bus tour of swing states, having already been to Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Wisconsin before hitting Iowa.
This state on the Mississippi is very much up for grabs; recent polls show Romney neck and neck with the incumbent, President Barack Obama.
Iowa has a few quirks, though, that candidates would do well to keep in mind.
In Adair, a few hundred miles to the west, a monument proudly stands in the city park, attesting to the fact that Adair was the site of “the nation’s first train robbery, by the notorious Jesse James.”
The monument even includes a section of the track that James diverted to complete his crime, which netted him and his gang a mere $3,000.
This same prickly spirit was in evidence in Davenport.
Dozens of protesters surrounded the rally site, armed with signs: “Romney for president … of the 1 percent,” “Romney economics means fewer teachers,” and “Corporations are not people.”
There were more colorful forms of criticism as well. The “Romneymobile” — a Cadillac with a toy dog strapped to the roof — circulated through downtown Davenport, and several lines of volunteers held up “Ron Paul” posters as a steady, if thin, stream of visitors arrived.
Ron Paul? Isn’t he out? Well, not in Iowa, where the Libertarian gadfly won 21 of 25 state delegates in the state convention over the weekend.
Iowa’s caucuses — that widely publicized series of town meetings that kicks off every presidential race — gave the win in January first to Romney by eight votes, then, after a recount, to Rick Santorum by 34. On third thought, the Iowa Republican Committee decided that the real winner would never be known.
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Well, after Saturday’s convention, it’s clear: The victory goes to Congressman Paul of Texas.
Not that it matters; Romney has enough bound delegates for a first ballot win at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August, when the media can finally stop saying “presumptive” before the term “Republican presidential nominee.”
In the meantime, Paul’s supporters are not giving up.
“It’s about liberty,” said Chris Rice, a Paul supporter who was coordinating the sign display. “Ron Paul says ‘do what you want as long as you don’t hurt others.’ Obama had people believing he’d end the wars, but he has not, and as for Romney … he wants small government, big prisons.”
Representatives from MoveOn, a political action committee dedicated to “giving real Americans a voice in a political process dominated by big money and armies of lobbyists,” were out in force.
They are calling for the repeal of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that in January 2010 effectively granted corporations the right to give unlimited donations to so-called “SuperPacs” associated with various political candidates.
“We dropped off a petition for (Iowa Senator Chuck) Grassley this morning,” said one MoveOn activist, who identified herself only as Biljana. “Citizens United has completely changed the political landscape. What you call democracy no longer exists in America.”
The atmosphere was different, though, once one went through security and into the enclosed area where the candidate would speak. Protesters were not allowed in, according to one young woman who was quite peeved by that fact.
“They did not trust us to behave ourselves,” she said bitterly. “What about free speech?”
Her friend, who identified herself as Iowa resident Maria Dickman, nodded somberly.
“Romney has completely lost the women’s vote,” she said. “Do I think the Republicans have declared a war on women? Absolutely!”
The 500 or so supporters who made it inside were more sympathetic, but not by that much.
“I guess we are Romney supporters,” said one man, hurrying by with his wife. “What else is left?”
Others were more positive.
“It’s time to put the economy back in the hands of the people who make the economy,” said Robert Westphal, who identified himself as one of three Republicans on the Rock Island County Board. The problem is that Rock Island is across the river — in Illinois.
“I know Illinois will go for Obama,” said Westphal, shaking his head. “He’s from Chicago, after all. But at least there’s a chance in Iowa.”
Bill Bloom, an Iowan who was helping to coordinate the event, believes there is more than a chance.
“Obama is going down,” he said. “He may be a well-intentioned man, but he does not have enough experience. Romney is a proven problem-solver, with a good record in business.”
Bloom is not at all bothered by what many see as the negative tone of the campaign so far.
“It’s hard not to sound negative when you’re talking about this economy,” he said. “Romney is not being negative, he’s just telling it like it is. As for Obama’s attacks on Romney at Bain Capital — they are just inaccurate.”
The Obama campaign has fielded videos of people tossed out of work by corporate takeovers orchestrated by Romney private equity firm, Bain Capital.
Read more: Obama targets the Bain of Romney’s existence
This is worse than misleading, according to Bloom.
“As I understand it, when Bain stepped in, they grew about 80 percent of the companies, about 15 percent stayed the same, and about 5 percent failed,” he said. “That’s about right for that kind of firm.”
Another man, who would not give his name, but who identified himself as a personal injury lawyer from Iowa, was similarly positive about Romney.
“I started with nothing and now I have eight million dollars,” he said. “That’s the way it is. The Democrats think that the path forward has to be the same for everyone. But you know? Not everyone’s a winner.”
Once the candidate came, there was a lot of cheering and flag waving.
Romney delivered his standard stump speech, attacking Obama’s record in phrases smooth from long use.
“Obama campaigned in 2008 on the slogan ‘Hope and Change,’” said Romney. “Now he is just hoping to change the subject.”
Another old nugget was also resurrected.
“Obama now says ‘Forward, forward, Forward!’” said the candidate. “Forward where? Over a cliff?”
Romney reiterated his promises to put Americans back to work, and to make the country “the shining city on the hill” it has once been, a beacon to all mankind.
“Keep American strong!” he thundered, to loud applause. “So strong that no one will think of testing it!”
As the crowd trickled out of the rally, a few were less than pleased.
“The flags were all made in China,” said Jacob Shuck, 23, from Moline, Illinois. “Couldn’t they even take off the tags?”
Shuck was supporting Romney — sort of.
“I don’t really care if gay people get married,” he said. “Do you? But I like Romney’s economic policies. I think it will be easier to change social policies later than economic ones.”
Shuck is also vehemently opposed to ObamaCare, the Affordable Health Care Act.
“I am young, and I’m healthy,” he said. “Why should I have to buy insurance? Besides,” he grinned, “I am still on my dad’s policy.”
He can stay on his father’s insurance until he is 26 — unless the Supreme Court knocks down Obama’s health care plan, that is.