WASHINGTON - A few days ago, I got to see a presidential campaign event as a citizen - in a way I never did covering national political conventions and debates over two decades. In that capacity, the reporter arrives in a press bus and is quickly herded into a room littered with picnic tables, big television screens and tangles of wires for electricity and computer jacks.
One's companions on these exhausting treks were other reporters whose job it is to struggle for something new while working off a text and never really looking at the candidate.
This time, I was a skeptical customer at Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's appearance at Virginia's largest American Legion Post in suburban Springfield last Thursday. Members of the traveling press said they learned about it only the night before. It had actually been in the works for four days.
Two trucks bearing stage and lighting equipment were being unloaded at the post on Wednesday morning when I got an invitation, as a Legion member. A post leader said the Romney campaign wanted everyone in the ballroom an hour early. It was, like all indoor campaign events, invitation only. I sat alone for a time before the place began filling up with gray-haired white men in veterans' blue overseas caps.
Romney was coming there to feed these veterans raw meat, to indirectly assure them he was not including veterans who get benefits as among the 47 percent who were on the dole, who were victims. Romney needs to motivate these guys during the campaign's two-minute warning.
Romney was 33 minutes late for this appearance. As they waited, some vets were interviewed. No journalists get the benefit of the doubt from these seniors. One retired Marine colonel wearing a hard grin told off a reporter who wanted him to talk about the polls showing Romney was losing the Virginia battleground state to President Obama. All the polls are rigged, the former Marine said.
A polished, experienced reporter from NPR interviewed me. I voiced several reasons for being hesitant to vote for Obama again, but when NPR broadcast the talk, it was so chopped up it sounded like I was sore at President George W. Bush.
Romney's warm-up speaker was Jim Nicholson, a Bronze Star combat veteran of Vietnam. He was Bush's secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Then Romney accused Obama of putting a gun to the head of Congress by advocating a spending sequestration deal that would cripple our defense. Romney said he will increase our fighting forces by 100,000. He warned that defense cuts have trimmed the Navy to the smallest operational fleet in 90 years. Romney said the Air Force fleet is the oldest and smallest since 1947.
Romney spoke cogently for 25 minutes without notes or TelePrompter, which may help in his debates Wednesday and again on Oct. 16 and 22 with a man who leans on both. Unlike the conventional wisdom put out by the legacy press, Romney came across in this setting as a warm, decent even sensitive man who surely has a fire in his belly to win.
Predictably, Romney won rising, rousing cheers from these partisans. One said afterward, "I didn't think he had a chance until I saw this today." But it is late.
Some in the audience who reacted enthusiastically to Romney's speech later wondered how he would grow the defense budget, cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time.
After Romney left for lord knows where, we moved hungrily for the remnants of a picnic set up for members of the campaign caravan who barely had time to touch it.