ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Here's one benefit of a presidential campaign that seems interminably long: Mitt Romney's campaign rallies are getting much better.
Romney likes to tout his business experience, but now that he's deep into his second presidential campaign, he's a pretty seasoned campaigner, too. He has also endured enough flubs while on the stump to know what works and what doesn't.
That electioneering experience produced a marvelous little rally on the eve of Super Tuesday here in Zanesville, one of the rustier corners of the Rust Belt states that will play a decisive role in both the Republican nominating contest and the general election in the fall. Here are four things Romney has learned to do right at a campaign rally:
Let your wife kick things off. Especially if your wife is Ann Romney. Mrs. Romney said a few words at the start of the Zanesville rally, and despite a weird joke about pregnancy, she had a softening effect on her sometimes-robotic husband.
She made one bland political statement, announcing that, "Women want good jobs for their children. And they don't want debt." Any moms or wives disagree with that?
More importantly, she made her husband seem cuddly when he cooed at her and said, "She's my first lady, and I hope some day she's the nation's first lady." The unspoken message is that Ann Romney is White House material: An assertive but uncontroversial corporate wife who only makes her husband look better. If Team Romney could trigger one subliminal thought among voters on this issue, it would be to run the other Republican wives through the same test and gauge their comfort level with each of them as first lady.
Start on time. Romney actually took the stage in Zanesville about 15 minutes earlier than the advertised start time of 6:30 p.m. That was surely a relief to a couple hundred people who had been standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a glorified mosh pit in front of the stage for more than an hour.
Timeliness suggests that the candidate is well-organized and respects the time of the voters who have trudged out to see him. Compare that to a Rick Santorum rally in Dayton earlier in the day, which was delayed not because Santorum was late, but because his introducer and top Ohio supporter, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, hadn't arrived yet. That gave the impression that DeWine's time was more valuable than Santorum's, while the crowd awkwardly waited on account of protocol that didn't matter to them.
Keep it short. In Zanesville, Romney spoke for less than 20 minutes and skipped the usual recitation of policy prescriptions on every issue under the sun. Mostly, he detailed the differences between himself and President Obama on taxes, energy, defense and overall vision for government—addressing a key concern of conservatives who worry that President Romney would be little more than an Obama clone. He spoke quickly and peppered his talk with rah-rah lines such as, "I love this country," and "I believe in America."
There may have been a few supporters eager to hear a complete rundown of Romney's tax reform proposal, but keeping it short made Romney seem more energetic, while keeping the crowd from getting bored. "I thought he was very personable, very real," says Cheryl Reynolds, a mother of nine from Glenford, Ohio, who brought three of her kids to check out democracy in action. "People say he's cold, but he's not. He's warm-hearted."
There were rumors that Romney wasn't feeling well, which may have led to a truncated rally. But if so, brevity was a happy discovery. Many people who bothered to show up had seen some of the televised GOP debates and were generally familiar with the candidates' positions. All Romney needed to do was give supporters a sense of his personality and a few blurry iPhone pictures, while providing the obligatory sound bites for the news cameras in the back of the room.
Fill an undersized room. An effective campaign rally is like a good cocktail party: It's better to feel crowded in a small room than empty in a big room. Romney learned this recently when he addressed a crowd of 1,200 people at Ford Field in Detroit, which has a capacity of 65,000. Little known was the fact that the event had to be moved from a smaller venue because the sellout crowd would have been too large. Instead, Team Romney looked like a Little League outfit hopelessly out of place in a big league stadium. The obligatory mockery ensued.
At the Zanesville venue, by contrast, people spilled out of the reception hall doors, while those who were late craned to get a look at the candidate. Anxious security officers continually shooed people out of the exit ways. It felt like somebody important was inside. Then, 15 minutes later, everybody was happy to be headed home.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman