BY JORDAN GREEN
Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and his newly chosen running mate, US Rep. Paul Ryan addressed upwards of a thousand supporters in a sweltering High Point furniture factory on Sunday as large crowds turned out and the GOP rank and file showed signs of growing enthusiasm for their ticket.
The presidential candidate called the occasion “Day 2 on our pathway to reclaim America’s promise” while standing in front of a backdrop of unfinished chairs and spools of fabric, along with his wife, Ann, and Rep. Ryan’s family.
“We need to restore strong families and strong values, a strong economy that puts people back to work, and a military that’s second to none,” Romney said.
The campaign stop at Absolute Style Furniture had people trekking along the shoulder of West Green Drive and waiting for hours in a broad and slow-moving line that snaked around industrial buildings. Two hours before Romney and Ryan’s arrival, the converted manufacturing floor had filled to capacity — 1,250 to 1,300 by the count of High Point Fire Marshal Michael E. Levins. Others were directed into an overflow building holding up to 2,000.
“There are a lot of pissed-off people,” Levins said. “They said, ‘I drove here three hours.’” Similar crowds greeted Romney and Ryan at a stop in Mooresville earlier in the day, where 1,700 people crowded into the NASCAR Technical Institute and some who could not be accommodated in a second overflow building were turned away.
Before Romney and Ryan’s arrival in High Point, several high profile Republican candidates and elected officials, including US Sen. Richard Burr, worked the crowd into a state of excitement and anticipation. Lieutenant gubernatorial nominee Dan Forest, who worked the lines outside talking to voters for three hours, captured the mood among candidates and party leaders, who argued that this year’s election is the most important of their lifetime.
“I believe this is our generation’s 1776,” Forest said. “America’s at a tipping point. We’re going to decide in November whether we continue the American experience or tip over into socialism or worse.”
Melanie McNamara, owner of Absolute Style Furniture, said her employees asked her why Romney wanted to come to High Point. “This is an area that was thriving,” she said. “This is where manufacturing began. This is where it’s going to continue. This is an area that has been slated for revitalization by the city of High Point. And Mitt Romney is going to be the person to lead our country to that revitalization.”
Gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory seemed to allude to both to the economic recession under the watch of President Obama and his defeat four years ago to Democrat Bev Perdue, as he rallied the crowd, asking, “Are you ready for a Carolina comeback? Are you ready for a USA comeback?” The crowd responded by chanting, “USA, USA, USA.” It was one of two chants — the other was “Mitt, Mitt, Mitt” — that punctuated the campaign stop.
The two stops on Sunday prior to what is being billed as a “homecoming rally” in Waukesha, Wis. near Ryan’s hometown of Janesville cut a path through a section of the upper Piedmont that is critical to the Romney campaign’s hopes for carrying the state of North Carolina.
John McCain carried Iredell County, where Mooresville is located, by more than 60 percent four years ago, and the town is close to the north end of Mecklenburg County, a suburban area rich in Republican votes that is home to Speaker of the House Thom Tillis.
High Point is the second largest city in Guilford County, which was carried by Obama in 2008. But the city is adjacent to Davidson and Randolph, two smaller counties that provided McCain with lopsided margins.
Democrats have by no means ceded North Carolina to the Republican candidate this time around, and a consortium of progressive groups, including the NC AFL-CIO, Teamsters Local 391, MoveOn. org and Planned Parenthood, planned to protest the Romney campaign outside of Absolute Style Furniture.
But the dissent heard by the presidential candidate and his Republican supporters came from within their ranks.
Someone in the audience started shouting the name of Ron Paul, Romney’s libertarian-leaning primary opponent, early in the candidate’s speech. Romney paused, while the crowd booed and then drowned out the protester with the “USA” chant.
“You know, it takes a strange character when you act up when we start talking about our veterans,” Romney said.
In fact, the disruption had occurred while the crowd was cheering in response to a statement by the candidate that they might like him and his running mate, but that he knew the reason they were there was because they loved their country. A cry of “We love you, Mitt” could be heard from the crowd as Romney praised his running mate, the senior budget writer in the US House.
“The reason I selected this guy to be my running mate is that I wanted someone who is a leader,” Romney said. “He’s a leader. His leadership was formed by virtue of strong character. That’s where leadership begins. See, he grew up fast because his dad died when he was in high school. The family had to come together, pull together.... He planned on doing something else with his career, but, you know, he looked at the country and recognized the real challenges we have, and decided to go and try to make a difference.”
Ryan returned the compliment. “Remember when they had the Olympics back when it was in Salt Lake?” Ryan asked. “Remember the chaos? Remember the waste and public spending? Waste, corruption, bloat — it sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? Who did they turn to? This man standing right here beside me.”
Sentiments in the crowd were a mixture of party-line enthusiasm, curiosity and excitement.
Melanie Harris, a psychologist from Greensboro, pulled out a dog-eared copy of Obama’s biography, Dreams of My Father, to demonstrate that she was open to considering both candidates. She rated her excitement about the Romney-Ryan ticket at a seven out of 10, and said she looks forward to hearing more from the campaign through the convention.
“I think it was a bold choice [to select Ryan],” she said. “It was riskier than some choices he could have made. I like it because Ryan is someone who doesn’t try to sugar-coat things. I like the fact that he is an economist.”
JoAnne Wittenborn, a member of tea party-oriented Conservatives for Guilford County, called Romney and Ryan “a dream team,” and said the vice presidential pick shows Romney is “not taking the conservative vote for granted.” She said she had been excited about Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, but felt that Ryan was more qualified for the job because of his more extensive experience.
“If he would have chosen someone who was not dynamic and not conservative, we would have all voted for him, but I don’t know how hard we would have worked,” Wittenborn said. “We would have worked hard regardless but I don’t know with how much enthusiasm. I’m excited.”