Mitt Romney's Frontrunner Moment

For the first time in the 2012 campaign, the wind is at the Republican's back. But can he make it last -- and will it be enough?


SIDNEY, Ohio -- On a crisp fall evening, Mitt Romney came to this small town in Western Ohio to confront the two most pressing questions of the election at this moment: Has his sudden gust of momentum from the first debate turned the race in his favor for the first time? And will it be enough to flip Ohio?

To the 9,500 Ohioans who jammed traffic and packed the county fairground here, there could be no doubt: Everything Has Changed since Romney trounced President Obama in the first presidential debate last week.

The crowd was nearly equal to half the population of Sidney, a graceful agricultural-industrial burg ringed by a Honda plant, a peanut factory, and miles and miles of farm fields, crisping in the early frost. They came from Piqua and St. Paris and Tipp City, suffused with the satisfaction of a campaign finally going their way.

All Romney had to do was mention the debate to draw a loud cheer. "Now, the president's answer is that he's going to save Big Bird," he added, to laughter. "My view is we need a president who's going to save the American family!"

On street corners outside, members of the opposition in Big Bird and Ernie costumes roamed in protest, seeking to highlight Romney's promise to cut government funding for public broadcasting. Ernie's cheap costume made him look demented and a bit sinister, his orange head collapsing on one side and cavernous blank eyeholes staring beseechingly. He held a hand-lettered sign reading, "Kill Romneys dream of becoming President, instead of Sesame St." Further down the road, a vendor was selling toilet paper with President Obama's picture on each sheet for $4.50 a roll.

Romney has drawn ahead of the president in several national polls released this week, and state surveys released late Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal had him drawing even in Florida and Virginia. But he still trailed in Ohio, a state where improving economic conditions, the auto bailout, and the class-warfare blowback from Romney's "47 percent" comments had helped Obama build a wide lead pre-debate. Now, Romney is hitting the state hard in hopes of riding his current wave to a turnaround. He spent Tuesday and Wednesday in the state and is scheduled to be back Friday and Saturday.

The audience streamed through the metal detectors, filling the grounds in a standing mass and climbing atop giant farm vehicles for a better view; the campaign said it was three times as many people as they expected. Romney's traveling press secretary, Rick Gorka, tossed a football around with other campaign aides as reporters packed into a heated tent. The fairground's exhibition barns were draped with Romney logos and surrounded by hay bales. The sun was just setting as Romney took the stage, backlighting him with a warm pink glow.

Things could go sour again, making this the only moment Romney looked like a winner in this campaign. But then again, they might not -- making this might be the moment things started going right for Mitt Romney and never stopped.

To his supporters here, he might as well have already won. Despite a couple of staffers' frantic effort to whip up the crowd with a T-shirt gun and shouts of "U.S.A!", the mood was more calm than feverish, a combination, perhaps, of 45-degree weather and rural temperaments. But gone were the anger and paranoia of a couple of weeks ago, when the Romney campaign felt like a badly listing ship and obituaries were being written every day in the press. When he was losing, his supporters would often say he wasn't a smooth talker, but he had experience and know-how and that was what mattered. On Wednesday, the excuses were gone; three different members of the crowd independently declared in interviews that Romney reminded them of Ronald Reagan. ("My favorite president," one added.)

Romney hasn't suddenly and miraculously transformed as a speaker. He still tries to relate to audiences with painful lines like "I know a number of you are in the agricultural community"; he still tells long, meandering anecdotes about his experiences with various American flags. But being on a good run makes everyone and everything look better.

Behind the television riser, Romney's much-maligned strategic guru, Stu Stevens, was horsing around with the press corps, who had been greeted at the event with caramel apples, hot chocolate, and pink fleece blankets (it is breast cancer awareness month). Stevens snapped an iphone photo of NPR's Ari Shapiro wearing the blanket like a cape, and called to CBS's John Dickerson, who wore a dignified tan coat, "You look good, but you would look better with a pink blanket!"

Asked to reflect on the campaign's sudden turnaround, Stevens said there was a "renewed intensity" since the debate. "There's a natural rhythm to campaigns," he said. "You know, it was June 2011 when Governor Romney announced, yet there's still a huge number of people who are just tuning into the race." It was, he implied, as if those first 16 months of campaigning were mere prologue to the serious business now under way. "There's something about getting away from all the ads and just seeing two men on that [debate] stage," he said. "It's unique."

Democrats are convinced Obama lost the debate, but Republicans are just as sure Romney won it. Their satisfaction comes from the conviction that the world finally got to see what they've known all along -- that Obama is an empty suit and Romney is not the caricature the media has drawn. "I watched him a lot before the debate, so I didn't need the debate to know he was good," 71-year old Barbara Strunk, a tax preparer in red earmuffs and tinted bifocals, said as two high-school marching bands and a Boy Scout troop warmed up the crowd. "But I think other people needed to see it."

Steve Coates, a 62-year-old public-school computer technician with a bristly mustache and a country drawl, said of Obama, "He done his usual same ol' same ol'. I know he was missing his teleprompter! He just keeps spouting the same crap. There's no substance to him."

John Adams, the local state representative, said he never believed Romney was losing -- "I didn't believe the polls" -- but a lot of people were starting to get discouraged up until a week ago. "The word on the street was, 'It's over,'" he said. "The debate made a big difference. It energized the party. For me personally, it was a turning point."

What does Romney have to do now, I asked, to turn the tide in Ohio and keep the momentum going? "Just keep doing what he's doing," Adams said. "There's two more debates. We just have to execute."