TAMPA---A rally designed to unify tea partiers and Republicans ahead of the Republican National Convention did not appear to be very unified behind Mitt Romney Sunday night
The three hour long event, held inside a sprawling evangelical church in northeastern Tampa, drew in 2000 people despite the late-night arrival of Tropical Storm Isaac. And yet the excitement in the room—carried by speeches from young Utah tea party Rep. Jason Chaffetz, TV reporter-turned-Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and the undiminished draw of Hermann Cain—was built not around Romney, but President Obama.
Nancy McKnew and Elaine Anderson, two elderly tea partiers who drove down from Georgia for the rally, came in through the rain wielding a giant cut out of Obama's face affixed with a Pinocchio nose, and held a sign that read "No more years ... Bye, bye Obama."
When Chaffetz, a Romney surrogate who is also Mormon, delivered a speech peppered with anecdotes about Romney, he was met with moments of near-awkward silence.
"Mitt Romney is the right person," he told the audience, after finishing a story about how Romney saved money during the Olympics by getting rid of employees' free lunches. The room shuffled.
"We've got to defeat Barack Obama!" Chaffetz tried again. The room erupted in cheers.
Herman Cain, easily the best orator of the evening, drew a similar response. The former Republican presidential candidate and Godfather's pizza CEO held the crowd rapt as he described growing up in a tiny duplex, where he slept on a cot in the kitchen with his brother. The two brothers often wondered why their home was only "half-a-house."
His father, Cain explained, worked three jobs to get that half-a-house. And one day, after working those three jobs for long weeks and hours and weekends, his father piled the whole family into the car and drove them to a brand new brick building. This time it was a whole house, for them to live in.
"He did do that," Cain roared to the crowd, which roared their approval back at him. "Not the government!" President Obama angered small business owners weeks ago when he said "you didn't build that" as part of a larger speech.
When Cain finished, the crowd emerged from the church into the rain, some holding Don't Tread On Me flags, others dressed in revolutionary war-style tea party uniforms, and many of them carrying homemade anti-Obama signs.
Dustin Stockton, who heads TheTeaParty.Net and organized the rally, lingered at the exit. He said more than the "message" the rally sent, he thought the event was more about "unity" and "enthusiasm." He did acknowledge, however, that little of that enthusiasm came from talking about Romney.
"I think we're still warming up to Romney," Stockton said. "Frankly he wasn't most of our first or second choices."
Jason Hoppenbrower, a Florida social worker and tea partier since 2008, said it didn't matter that Romney wasn't liked.
"Barack Obama is anti-American. The primary concern is to remove him," he said. "So I'm going to support any who is going against Barack Obama. Because he is destroying the nation."
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