WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s challenge in the art of connecting with an audience has always been to meet the high expectations. For challenger Mitt Romney, it has been to exceed the low ones.
Their party conventions now over, both men are entering the high-speed flat track ahead of them with new vigor. The two have their own distinctive alchemy with their crowds — Obama with his lectern-grabbing riffs and his “love-you-backs” and Romney with his jeans-clad informality in a ramrod frame.
They’re not comparable. But each man, in his own way, heads into the final weeks of the campaign newly energized.
A look at their recent days on the trail.
Hitting his peak on the campaign trail is all about the feedback.
Give him a crowd that has lost its energy by wilting in the hot sun and Obama will deliver a workmanlike speech that hits the notes and punches his topic points with enough gusto, but doesn’t soar to match his reputation for rhetorical flight.
But give him an animated audience, preferably indoors and already whipped up to greet him, and the result is practically chemical — a combination of self-confidence and crowd enthusiasm that seems to almost feed on itself. Twice last weekend, while touring Florida in his million-dollar campaign bus, Obama found that sweet spot.
In West Palm Beach on Sunday, the crowd waited inside a convention center as the Obama playlist dialed up Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” the love song that Obama turned into a YouTube sensation after singing a snippet at a fundraiser earlier this year. Spontaneously, most in the West Palm crowd of 6,000 chimed in, creating a chorus that echoed inside the giant convention center.
In Kissimmee the day before, an eager audience let out a loud roar before Obama’s speech at the mere sight of an aide attaching the presidential seal to the front of his lectern.
He appeared without a tie, his top button undone and sleeves rolled. Once started, Obama got an assist from a teleprompter but played off the crowd. They chanted “Four more years!” and he paused, nodding confidently, as he surveyed the scene. Then he worked them into a frenzy.
“I just want to remind everybody four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq — I did,” he said. The crowd cheered. “We said we’d wind down the war in Afghanistan — and we are doing that.” The noise rose.
“And a few days before 9/11, a new tower is rising above the New York skyline.” It got louder. “We’re coming back. Meanwhile, al-Qaida is on the path to defeat and Osama bin Laden is dead!”
The word “dead” was barely heard above the din.
He ended his speech shouting: “We will win this election. … And you and I together will remind the world why the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth!”
He spun on his heels and blew a vigorous kiss to the audience seated behind him. In West Palm the next day, he stepped away from the lectern and gave a waist-high, double fist-pump as he shouted “Let’s go!”
If it’s not a crowd, it’s an off-schedule stop at a cafe or a restaurant, surprising local patrons as he makes small talk and poses for pictures. In Kissimmee Saturday, he was delighted to meet a 7-year-old boy who was born in Hawaii. Obama exchanged the traditional “shaka” hand wave with the boy and then mischievously asked, “Do you have a birth certificate?”
On Sunday, Obama, 51, stopped at a Fort Pierce pizza restaurant where he found himself embraced in a bear hug and lifted off the ground by the spirited proprietor, a Republican with a bodybuilder’s physique and a charitable foundation. He’s voting for Obama.
And so it goes. Visiting his Port St. Lucie campaign headquarters, he placed phone calls to other volunteers. Cell phone to his ear, he introduced himself to one, Barney Roberts of Jacksonville, and praised him for his military service and his help.
There was a pause.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” he said.
If Romney didn’t get much of a bounce out of his convention, it didn’t keep him from getting one in his step.
The Republican presidential candidate, with a reputation for being wooden and reserved, returned to campaigning last weekend animated and buoyant.
It’s a slight shift in Romney’s body language and tone. The former businessman remains a model of good posture. And although he has traded coat and tie for jeans and rolled-up sleeves, Romney doesn’t do loose.
But there was an intensity in Romney’s onstage demeanor during campaign events and in his approach to voters Friday and Saturday that projected confidence and energy in a race far from certain and far from over.
In Virginia Beach, Va., on Saturday, Romney closed a rally at the Military Aircraft Museum with sharp gestures emphasizing the points in his five-point economic plan.
As he closed, his voice rose with the cheers of the audience until his shouts could barely be heard.
“Any challenge we face is a challenge we’re going to overcome,” he belted. “But we need a new president to get America on track. I expect to build a new future, a strong future, and take back America.”
Romney doesn’t use a lectern unless it’s a formal speech. He’s given to pacing on stage, in short steps, mic in hand. To make a point, he stops firmly, stands straight and delivers chopping motions with his hands.
Whether or not the convention provided momentum, Romney seems bent on creating his own.
If he succeeded in the last few days, he may have been helped by being well rested. He spent several days last week during the Democratic National Convention laying low at his vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H., prepping for next month’s debates.
In Virginia’s capital Saturday, Romney handed out free hot dogs, autographed T-shirts and posed for pictures with hundreds of supporters and NASCAR fans who turned out to see him, despite a steady rain at the Richmond International Speedway.
And although he lacks the common touch of past Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Romney seems to be exuding more warmth. “I love America, and I love you, and I love the work you do,” he told the audience in Virginia Beach.
Often caricatured as an out-of-touch elitist, Romney has hurt himself at times. In February, when asked about NASCAR during the Daytona 500 in Florida, he said he had friends who were team owners.
So on Saturday he mixed with race fans, autographed a racecar decorated with his campaign logo and met with Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR.
But when asked by a reporter which of the sport’s drivers was his favorite, he dodged, saying: “There’s lots of drivers I like, thank you.”
Romney, 65, is clearly resilient. A mechanical problem on his campaign jet Saturday delayed his return from Virginia to Boston until 2 a.m. Sunday.
Later that day, Romney was up for church — then on to his campaign headquarters for a five-hour debate prep session.
— Associated Press