NEWARK, OHIO (Reuters) - Enthusiastic crowds waving American flags and holding campaign signs are greeting Mitt Romney on a five-day bus tour but the Republican’s first big campaign swing since the primary season ended is reaching out to voters who are already in his column.
Romney’s “Every Town Counts” trip through battleground states is unlikely to win over many of the independents who will decide November’s election against President Barack Obama. Instead, Romney is addressing mostly loyalists who waited in long check-in lines to hear him and, on Sunday, braved a thunderstorm to listen to their candidate.
Attendees have been almost entirely white, blue-collar workers and their families or retirees.
Romney’s six-state tour is as much about rallying Republican voters after a long and bitter primary battle than it is about winning over new supporters.
The bus has stopped in Republican-friendly territory like Ohio’s Newark, a town of about 47,000 that is 94 percent white and the seat of Licking County which Republican Senator John McCain won by 16 points in his presidential run in 2008, even as Obama won the state.
Rural Lebanon County in Pennsylvania, home to Cornwall where Romney visited an iron furnace, gave McCain a 19-point edge although Obama won the state by ten points four years ago.
As in most U.S. presidential races, the key in November will be who can win over independent voters particularly in swing states.
There are some signs that Romney’s economic arguments are hitting home with independents.
A majority of independents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll last week said that Obama’s policies have made it harder for Americans to gain employment, an argument central to Romney’s campaign.
But the former Massachusetts governor will need to go deeper to secure the swing state votes he needs. In Ohio, for example, the real fight with Obama is for independent voters in the Columbus suburbs and the Cincinnati metro area, not in rural counties.
At least in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the first three states on Romney’s swing through battleground states, crowds seemed as anti-Obama as pro-Romney, suggesting the candidate has more work to do to define himself.
“I‘m 80 percent against Obama, 20 percent for Romney,” said Kris Gunvalsen, 57, a truck driver from Seville, Ohio, who saw Romney speak at a rainy pancake breakfast in Brunswick. “The guy we’ve got just doesn’t have it.”
A large crowd of about 3,000 people attended the Brunswick event in awful weather.
“To have people huddled in the rain under trash bags to hear Mitt Romney is very moving,” senior Romney adviser Stuart Stevens said. “There’s a lot of passion.”
Romney has changed his campaign buses’ wrapper since the Republican primary season to more of a general election theme. Gone is the slogan “Conservative. Businessman. Leader” in favor of the generic “Believe in America” and a mural of patriotic symbols, from a Midwestern barn to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The rhetoric has barely changed, though, with Romney’s attacks on healthcare reform, budget deficits and intrusive government very tailored to his Republican base.
“President Obama campaigned on ‘hope and change.’ Now he hopes we’ll change the subject,” Romney said several times over the weekend in his stump speeches.
A year into his second White House campaign, and with hundreds of speeches under his belt, Romney has his scripted material under control and rarely strays from his jobs message. On the small-town tour he has rolled out anecdotes about various struggling Americans, many of them small business people or entrepreneurs cleverly defying the odds.
But the former venture capitalist, whose net worth is estimated at about $250 million, still struggles to connect to everyday people.
Romney’s comment on Saturday in Cornwall, where he marveled at the touch-screen technology used to order a meatball sandwich at a convenience store, had echoes of former President George H.W. Bush learning about supermarket scanners - a gaffe from his 1992 campaign.
“You press a little touch tone key pad … You touch this, touch this, touch this, go pay the cashier, and there’s your sandwich,” Romney said. “It’s amazing!”
Some of Romney’s surrogates have chided the campaign for not doing more than promising to be the “anti-Obama” candidate. Reversing Obama’s policies is often the candidate’s main talking point.
“By and large, you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite,” Romney said in a speech from the bus tour via video conference to a conservative meeting in Washington, referring to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Scott Walker, the Republican governor who just survived a bruising recall election in Wisconsin, and others have said that Romney needs a bolder message to win in November.
Stevens suggested the Romney campaign was ready to go bold. “Big changes are about big forces and big moments and big movements,” he said, terming Obama’s “stay the course” message inadequate.
Stevens said Romney is not avoiding speaking in more contested areas - although the Republican delivered one of his shorter stump speeches on Sunday as a small crowd of protesters staged a noisy protest.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen