NEWS

Mitt Romney takes campaign swing through Greencastle

PAT FRIDGEN
Mitt Romney spoke to the public in Greencastle two days before the primary election, which was April 24.

It was a cold and rainy day when Mitt Romney rolled into town. The man who would be president, at least if the Franklin County Republican Committee had its way, was the featured speaker at the April 22 Lincoln Day Dinner. And 608 people paid $50 each to hear the former Massachusetts governor explain why he was qualified to lead America for the next four years. The receptive audience enjoyed a late dinner at Green Grove Gardens east of Greencastle when the itinerary of the event shifted to accomodate Romney's schedule.

The salad had been served but the main course was delayed until after Romney's 20-minute speech. The guests were seated by 6 p.m. and the candidate's bus arrived 35 minutes later. According to Dwight Weidman, chairman of the county Republicans, Romney was to fly into the Hagerstown airport, and be driven to the event center. He was taken in a side back door and prepped in a holding room to the left of the stage. Weidman made the introduction and Romney appeared at 7:05.

"I feel bad that I'm between you and your meal," he told the crowd, to their amusement.

The GOP front-runner proceeded to point out the failures of President Barack Obama over the past three and a half years, referencing employment, income and new business start figures. Other economic indicators and relationships with foreign nations also revealed Obama's inability to fix the country's problems.

"He's out of ideas and out of excuses," declared Romney. "In 2012 we have to put him out of office."

He slammed the Democratic president's policies on healthcare, taxes, the military, energy and labor.

"It's not often I agree with David Axelrod (Obama's chief strategist)," he continued. "But last week he said, 'We have to get off the road we're on and go in a new direction.' Yep, that's right."

He faulted Obama for dividing the country. It needed someone to take charge in a positive way.

"I believe fundamentally we are one nation under God. This is a critical time for America," stressed Romney. "We'll overcome the challenge. I intend to be that leader."

Before the audience could applaud, one man yelled out, "That's what we want."

Romney shook hands with a few nearby people and then was whisked away, a Pittsburgh function next on his list. The media had been forced to remain in the back of the room, told they could go to the front only if escorted by a Secret Service agent. Several individuals went out the side door of the deck to the door closer to the stage, even as guardians politely told them to stay back. Though they made it inside, they were too late to get any close-up photographs of the potential Presidential nominee.

Getting ready

Putting a major political figure on the roster for a rural county banquet was no small feat. Weidman said he made a pest of himself with the Romney team. He first made contact in the middle of 2011, and helped with the signature drive to get Romney's name on the nominating ballot. In early March Weidman and Rep. Bill Shuster were at a news conference in Harrisburg to endorse Romney for president. And daily since then he did what he could to book the man.

With time running out, Weidman set the dinner date for April 16 and ticket sales got under way. Then Romney's people became interested in working something out. They asked him to change the date. Weidman said no, then quickly changed his mind. April 22 fit for all parties involved. Once word got out on April 5, people clamored for more tickets, so seating was expanded to the capacity of about 600.

The Secret Service was in Greencastle since midweek to prepare.

"They went over the facility with a fine-tooth comb," said Weidman. "The guys we were working with were so professional."

They set up a no-man's land between the stage and dining area, as a layer of protection. A couple of Secret Service agents stood watch from there.

Keith McCleaf, operations manager of Green Grove Gardens, had his staff in at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

"This is the biggest dinner we've served," he said as they brought out the beverages. "Our client is the Franklin County Republican Party. We want to do our best job for them."

Robert Fraser, Blue Ridge Summit, was one of the parking attendants. He reported for duty at 2:30 p.m., asked to help as a friend of the event center partners, Mearl and Dolores McCleaf, and Jerry and Arlene Martin. As to whether his service was voluntary or paid, he quipped, "I haven't been told yet."

Many people walked from their vehicles to the center, especially if they had umbrellas. However, Larry Leonard, owner of LL Trolley Express, gave rides to the security tent. Jacob McCleaf, 14, was his assistant, and set out a footstool for people boarding. Leonard was on site for the duration, giving rides back to the parking lot after the meal. Pennsylvania State Police stayed outside, providing security.

Visitors passed through a metal detector and the Secret Service inspected bags before anyone was allowed inside. The agents  did not have permission to comment to the press or purposely get photographed. Guests, arriving as early as 4:30 p.m.,  turned in their tickets and were assigned tables. The media stayed to the rear of the cavernous room. Two tables were reserved for local press and two for traveling press. That group arrived in a coach bus, with reporters and photographers from the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Bloomberg, Politico, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox and Reuters. One reporter rattled off the names of his contemporaries. He explained that they traveled together, with the Romney campaign coordinating their transportation, but each organization paid its own way.

Who attended

Ronald and Shirley Monn immediately ordered tickets when they read that Romney had committed to attend. "I want to get my country back," said Shirley Monn.

Miriam Springer was the opposite. She has attended the dinner annually, no matter who the speaker was. "I want to meet the candidates. I like to see them before I vote for them."

Richard and Carol Podolske, and their daughter Felicia Rodriguez, came to support "the next president, and get rid of Obama."

People came from Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. A few children were present, and adults of all ages mingled. Candidates for state and national offices also addressed the crowd. They included Marc Scaringi, Tom Smith and Steve Welch for U.S. Senate; Shuster for Congress;  John Maher and Frank Pinto for Pennsylvania General Auditor; Todd Rock and Rob Kauffman for Pennsylvania General Assembly; Rich Alloway for Pennsylvania Senate and Bob Thomas for delegate to the national convention. The timing was apt, as the state primary was two days later, on April 24.

Some people left the facility once Romney was gone, foregoing the meal. Even by 7:40 fire police were setting up flares on Route 16 to handle departing traffic. The program ended after 9 p.m.