DETROIT, Michigan — It was supposed to be an iconic campaign moment: Michigan’s native son comes to one of the country’s most depressed cities, stands in a cavernous football stadium, and gives an agenda-setting address designed to assure his would-be constituents that he’s here to save the day.
What took place here, instead, was perhaps the least populist stadium speech ever given. The seats were empty, with the candidate standing on a stage at the 30-yard line while attendees—all local business leaders wearing suits, ties, and pleated skirt —applauded tepidly as he ran through his standard economic talking points.
Romney even tried to manage expectations for the setting, starting his address with a reference to the barbecue waiting in a room off the field.
“I guess it is noon. I hate standing between you and your lunch,” he said. “But I want to talk about policy today. This is not exciting and barn-burning, but it’s, uh, it’s important.”
The event was, in many ways, a metaphor for Romney’s decidedly un-Reaganlike campaign, one that exists in bullet points and statistics, and has always struggled for a grand vision. There’s no “change we can believe in,” or “morning in America” in Romney’s effort, no unifying theme that turns his well-researched talking points into a rallying cry.
Friday’s speech did little to change that.
Romney offered virtually no new information in the speech, which had been billed as a major policy address, and merely repeated the highlights of the tax plan he outlined earlier this week. At times, he appeared veer back to his stump speech, looking down at his notes as though his teleprompters was malfunctioning.
On television, the whole affair looked stunted and oddly quiet—with a backdrop of tens of thousands of empty stadium seats coming into view every time the cameras cut away. On the field it wasn’t much better: organizers didn’t even fill every seat arranged in front of the stage.
At one point, Romney acknowledged the wealth of those in attendance.
“There will be some changes in current deductions for higher income Americans,” Romney said, pointing to the people in the chairs.
The campaign has often criticized the lofty rhetoric of President Obama, and the “grandiosity” of Newt Gingrich. But here, in an undeniably symbolic setting where the stakes were high, Romney could have used some altitude—some soaring lines to make the evening news.
Instead, after the event, reporters were preoccupied with one of the only new things he said: a mention of what he has in his garage.
“I like the fact that most of the cars i see are Detroit-made automobiles,” he said of Michigan. “I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs. I used to have a dodge truck, so I used to have all three covered.”