QUAKERTOWN, Pa.- Standing behind the cash register of a Wawa store, a young man handing change to a customer was distracted by Mitt Romney’s "Believe in America — Every Town Counts" campaign bus arriving outside.
"He’s here! He came here!" the young man shouted, grinning from ear to ear.
Customers who happened to be gassing up their vehicles at the attached service station, and those who happened to be shopping at a nearby mall, gathered as close as the Secret Service would allow, to catch a glimpse of or to shake hands with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Most news reports that day led with the charge that Romney "dodged" (a term coined in endless tweets by a frustrated Obama campaign staffer) a visit by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to Romney’s original destination.
What those reports missed was that Romney pulled off a spontaneous visit to a location lacking any staged comforts.
Except for a handful of supporters who learned of the venue change, Romney was on his own: No handmade signs from devoted fans. No local elected officials to ease his transition or to crack jokes. No balloons. No perfectly timed advance movements.
It was the sort of unstructured event that causes campaign staffers to prematurely gray.
Despite a reputation for being awkward among regular folks, Romney proved to be capable of acting on the fly. He found a way to take a potential confrontation with Rendell (and a parking lot full of paid hecklers) and turn it into a sharp learning curve for himself and his staff.
In a postcard setting of the type of town that he accuses President Obama of leaving behind, Romney found a way to connect with people.
Bucks County is no sure thing for Romney. It is your classic Philadelphia "collar county" that swung to Obama in 2008 and back to Republicans in the gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and U.S. House races of 2010. It is a mix of suburban neighborhoods, rural farms and pockets of manufacturing — a haven for Philadelphians seeking a home outside the city.
It is no sure thing for Obama, either: Recently released election results from April’s primary show that 100,000 Democrats across the state opted not to vote for the president while casting votes for other Democrats. In Bucks County, 2,000 left the Obama ballot unchecked.
Obama held a town-hall meeting here in April 2011, part of a short-lived tour promoting his "clean energy" platform; he visited Gamesa Wind USA in Fairless Hills, where mighty U.S. Steel once had a massive steel-production campus.
Not mentioned at that event was that the foreign-owned wind-turbine manufacturer operated largely because of a $22.8 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That stimulus money followed $10 million in grants, loans and tax credits from the Rendell administration to establish three plants promising to create 1,250 jobs within seven years.
So far, the company has underperformed by more than 400 jobs. Last week, it scrapped its third wind-turbine installation in a month, claiming uncertainty due to the possible end of federal tax credits that have facilitated wind-power development for more than 10 years.
Wind provides less than 1 percent of the state’s energy needs — so that’s the kind of thing that causes Bucks County swing-voters to give Romney a good, hard look. Especially when he talks about energy jobs in shale, coal and natural gas that promise prosperity across the state.
Back in his campaign bus, Romney was clearly comfortable with what transpired at the Wawa.
"I love meeting people that way," he said.
"I sat with a roundtable of small-business people from Pennsylvania earlier today and asked them to give me their perspective … they said that they are frustrated because they feel as though the government sees them as the enemy." After clearly savoring a Wawa meatball sandwich, Romney began eating handfuls of peanut M&Ms from a glass jar sitting on a counter beside boxes of Rice Krispies, Cocoa Puffs and Raisin Bran cereals.
"Gov. Rendell said we could win Pennsylvania," the Republican candidate said. "I think he is right.
"These are the voters who feel left behind, and that is why I am coming out here to get to know them."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter