The foul stench was getting worse. It was the kind of smell that could only come from a few hundred people in winter coats collectively pooling their body heat and political discontent while waiting in an airplane hangar for GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.
It was the kind of smell that anyone attending the Mitt Romney rally a couple of days prior would have found simply unpalatable. That local campaign stop had been dazzling and classy. Romney had brought along Sen. John McCain, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and actor Jon Voight, and the weather couldn’t have been nicer.
Not Newt. The former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives hunkered his supporters in a hangar on the edge of Pensacola International Airport. They were made to line up single file outside in the morning chill as if they had come to view a body or maybe pay a nickel for their chance to gawk at some roadside oddity.
Florida’s 2012 GOP presidential primary race landed Pensacola visits from the party’s two top contenders. Romney hit The Fish House for a pancake breakfast on Saturday, Jan. 28, with Gingrich dropping in for an election eve rally.
By the time Gingrich made it to town, conventional wisdom pegged him well below Romney. Inside the hangar, his rally felt desperate—a fourth-quarter, clinched-fist, Hail Mary pass.
After several introductory speakers, Gingrich supporters were kept waiting long enough to hear the candidate’s soundtrack more than a couple of times and begin to wonder if things might be falling apart.
Eventually, the desperation began wearing on them. They started making ridiculous statements—“I could beat Obama”—and reading a 2.0 version of the Contract with America as if the pamphlet might contain some cryptic clues as to how Gingrich would be able to hold his campaign together.
Folks at the Romney event had been much less jumpy. They sported their Sunday best on a Saturday morning and enjoyed waterfront dining behind expensive sunglasses.
These people flocked to The Fish House from all directions with big smiles and brisk paces. They understood something that everyone in Gingrich’s hangar knew as well: Romney would take Florida.
The Saturday morning crowd had come to see a winner. They had come to see the man everyone agreed looked good in a suit.
“It ain’t the breakfast,” said David Peebles, as he sat soaking up some rays and waiting for Romney.
But the breakfast wasn’t too shabby, either. Supporters enjoyed pancakes, bacon, orange juice and hot coffee and talked about how Romney finally appeared to be the front-runner.
Republican presidential politics has always been about waiting one’s turn. McCain had to wait for George W. Bush, whose father had held the office. Romney had to wait for McCain to get his chance in 2008.
Nobody seemed too excited about throwing their vote Romney’s direction. They had, rather, simply resolved to make the mature decision. A day earlier, McCain had summed up in a phone interview with the IN what seemed to be local Republicans’ feelings about the former Massachusetts governor when he identified Romney as the party’s “best chance.”
“I think he’s got the wind at his back,” the Arizona senator had said.
McCain was enlisted to warm up The Fish House crowd for the GOP hopeful and deliver the support of the retired veterans. It was an easy sell. Everyone likes to shoot the bull about raising hell and kicking ass in the glory days—the Senator and former prisoner of war spoke about his time spent becoming a naval aviator at Pensacola NAS, hinting at his days at Trader Jon’s.
“I donated my entire paycheck to cultural institutions here,” McCain joked with the crowd.
The vibe in Gingrich’s airplane hangar was a little darker. There weren’t too many jokes, and the main punch line was too much to contemplate—the GOP establishment had stripped Gingrich bare and left his bones to be picked clean in the Florida primary. Hilarious.
Michael Reagan—radio talk show host and son of Republican action-hero Ronald Reagan—attempted to bully the political realities into the corner.
“Back in 1994, all these people were praising him,” Reagan scattered the vultures and defended Gingrich to the hangar crowd. “They should be praising him now.”
Back at The Fish House, the air had been light and fluffy. Even discussing politics on such a beautiful day seemed almost vulgar. Besides, everyone appeared happy enough just to watch Romney smile—a smile nearly as dreamy as that of Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, who stood beside the candidate.
But Newt seemed at home mired in the muck of a spiraling campaign. When he entered the hangar to the sounds of political catcalls—“NoBama!”—the former speaker stood silent for a moment absorbing the negative vibe.
“Actually,” Gingrich finally said, “‘NoBama’ and ‘NoRomney’ are about the same.”
Whereas Romney breezed through the generalities of GOP standards—God, the military and the free market—Gingrich preferred to delve deep into specifics, forcing his followers to wade into the woods and hash out policy details with him.
Gingrich talked about repealing the Dodd-Frank bill, breaking up Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and sending half the Homeland Security forces to the U.S.-Mexico border. He also spoke about beefing up the country’s military.
“I don’t want the Chinese, I don’t want the Pakistanis, I don’t want the Iranians, I don’t want the Venezuelans or Cuba or anybody else to be confused,” he told the crowd.
And while Romney did touch on policy specifics, he preferred to play it safe and allow the campaign crowd to be swept away by—as McCain called it—“the wind at his back.”
To wrap up his Fish House visit, the candidate began reciting the words to “America the Beautiful.” In between lines of lyrics, Romney relayed a story about himself phoning 63 military spouses to let them know their loved ones serving in Iraq were alright.
It was a nice story, with no real point. And everyone was fine with that. No one was asking too much from the frontrunner and, besides, the morning had been marvelous.
“We’re a patriotic people,” Romney smiled. “We love America.”