TOLEDO, Ohio — Mitt Romney covered a lot of territory Wednesday — rhetorically and geographically — as he crisscrossed Ohio delivering stump speeches that emphasized, alternately, trade, debt, energy, and job creation. But there's one thing he said at every campaign stop.
"Look, I know the president cares about America and the people of this country," he told the roughly 3,500 supporters gathered in a convention center here. "He just doesn't know how to help them. I do. I'll get this country going again."
It's a version of a line he debuted at an Atlanta fundraiser last week, when the campaign was neck-deep in damage control after a leaked fundraiser video showed Romney frankly dismissing all Obama voters as government leeches. The line, aides told BuzzFeed, was intended to combat his image as a heartless Gordon Gekko figure, and to stress that he cares about working people, and simply has different ideas about how to help.
But as he dispatched that argument in campaign stops across the Buckeye State, Romney encountered some unexpected pushback from the crowds, underscoring a fresh challenge his campaign's confused messaging has created.
Many of the partisans who filled the rallies didn't like hearing their nominee assert that Obama "cares about America."
"Actually, when he came out and said Obama cared for Americans, I stood back here and said, 'No he doesn't!'" said Dan Berger, a welder from Oregon, Ohio. "Obama's for changing America, he's bringing America down, he's not pushing America forward. So I disagree with Mitt on that one."
Berger's wife, Pamela, an outspoken conservative who periodically shouted, "Oh, hell yeah!" throughout the rally, shared her husband's unease with Romney's conciliatory words.
“I think Obama cares about certain America, like his constituency in the unions… he cares about his crony capitalist buddies, he cares about Warren Buffett," she said. "As along as they go along with the line, they’re going to be taken care of. There are certain Americans he does care about. But I don’t think he can look at the average, hard-working struggling American and say Obama cares about them. No."
Every presidential election forces candidates into a balancing act as they try to appease their committed and intensely partisan bases while simultaneously appealing to independents. But what made these complaints unusual is that Romney himself has veered back and forth in his approach to Obama, and many of the frustrated conservatives here were parrotting Romney's own former talking points as they pushed back against his current message.
Indeed, Romney's ongoing struggle to decide how he wants to define his opponent — Che Guevara Lite, or hapless, failed golfer-president — has not only kept him from making a compelling case to undecided voters: it's profoundly confused his most ardent supporters.
Romney told a surreptitiously-recorded fundraiser in May that swing voters who supported Obama in 2008 prefer the softer touch. "They love the phrase, 'He's in over his head,'" he said.
But in the months since then, Romney has played more directly to conservatives, using his stump to cast President Obama as a revolutionary, a semi-Socialist who "wants to turn us into Europe," who's in bed with "crony capitalists," and who is pursuing a radically progressive domestic agenda, with Obamacare as its centerpiece. Over the course of the campaign Romney has adjusted the intensity of his characterization to whatever strategy is coming out of Boston that day — but the takeaway was always clear: Obama "wants to fundamentally transform America."
Now that Romney is back to paying lip service to the president's patriotism and compassion, many fired-up partisan Republicans don't want to hear it. Every time he tried to assert that Obama cares about America, some members of the audience interrupted with boos and insistent shouts of "No!" By his last rally, he had apparently learned his lesson, rushing through the pro-Obama part of the line so the eventual applause would drown out the resistance.
The Bergers had their own theories as to why Romney was insisting on saying nice things about Obama.
"He's a gentleman, simple as that," Dan said, making it clear it wasn't necessarily a compliment.
"The elites in the campaign are telling him to say what the people want to hear, but it's not what they want to hear," said Pamela. "They look at these so-called polls that are skewed, and they feed him this information... But the polls are wrong."
Lynne Ferree, who works in the corporate office at ATR Iron & Steel in Toledo, was hopeful that Romney had some special "insight" into Obama's psyche that she didn't. But she concluded it was more likely that her nominee was simply demonstrating "respect for the office."
"[Romney] pulls Obama alongside him to make it feel like he cares too," Ferree said. "I have a different thought about what I think Obama might feel."