It’s after dark on Monday and bitterly cold. As I merge my tiny Toyota rental car off Interstate 93 in Manchester, N.H., and inch down Elm Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, the first thing I see is the line. It stretches for blocks around the Verizon Wireless arena, a boxy concrete hockey rink.
It’s only 8 p.m., and the Romney rally won’t start for three hours, but a sea of men, women, and children is waiting patiently to get inside the building and through the Secret Service’s metal detectors. They’re clutching homemade posters, and the lucky ones have cups of coffee.
I park the car and join them, and I’m immediately struck by the energy and optimism of the parka-wearing masses. Their fingers are numb, but they’re not complaining. Middle-aged mothers are swaying to Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” which is playing on an outdoor speaker, and a handful of college-age males in Red Sox caps are leading an impromptu sing-along of “God Bless America.”
Finally, we all get inside, and past the man with the electronic wand looking for weapons. It’s open seating, and people rush down the steps. They run to the front rows of the arena, down by where the hockey players usually sit during games. For them, this isn’t just another political rally — it’s a chance to see the man who may be elected president the next day, plus Kid Rock.
Before then, however, there is time to kill. Romney is running late from a string of campaign appearances, and he’s not expected to be onstage until close to midnight, so people settle in for a few hours of classic rock and Romney cinema. They watch the four-sided scoreboard, which hangs above the center of the arena, as it broadcasts a video of Romney’s recent rally at Red Rocks, and another one about Ann Romney, which leads many people to stand up and cheer.
They keep dancing, too, this time in the steep aisles, as Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” plays over the loudspeakers. At 9:30 p.m., a burly man in flannel near the press pen stands up and tries to start the wave, but he is met with derision from many of his fellow attendees. He rethinks his plan and starts to chant, “One more day! One more day!” This time, he’s met with applause, and the rest of his section joins in. Soon, the entire lower deck of the arena seems to be chanting the same refrain.
By 10:00 p.m., things are starting to happen onstage. Granite State politicians, such as gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne, give brief speeches. Senator Kelly Ayotte, a freshman Republican who’s dressed in a sharp black-leather jacket, gives the final talk among this group, and the crowd warmly embraces her. She doesn’t even need to say much. “How many of you think this is the most important election?” she asks. The crowd roars as if she were Lynyrd Skynyrd and had just promised to play “Free Bird.”
As Ayotte walks off, a few roadies are behind me, setting up another stage across the arena for Kid Rock, Detroit’s most famous rap-rocker. A moment later, the lights go down, the arena begins to slightly shake as feet stomp, and people start to scream — at a Romney rally.
The reporters around me close their Apple laptops and walk toward the stage. It’s one of those times where it’s nearly impossible to type coherently, because of the noise, and at the end of a long, tiring campaign, a little rock-and-roll isn’t the worst thing.
As expected, Kid Rock is all swagger. He’s in a black T-shirt, dark sunglasses, and jeans. He shimmies and struts as he plays his hits, such as “All Summer Long,” which uses the riff from “Sweet Home Alabama” as a backdrop to Rock’s lyrics about “smoking funny things” and “not thinking ’bout tomorrow.”
The thousands here aren’t put off by Rock’s cocky, front-man persona; they love his confidence and his message, which mixes unabashed patriotism with the joy of “sippin’ whisky out da bottle.” He may not be a celebrity on the same level as Bruce Springsteen, who spent Monday with the president, but he does have a Boss-like appeal. He’s a younger, often R-rated working-class hero.
At the end of his set, Rock jumps on top of a beat-up piano, which is decorated with bumper stickers, including a large one reading “BADASS.” His backing band starts to jam the opening chords of “Born Free,” a chugging piece from his canon. Rock waves his arms in the arm as dry ice and laser beams surround him. As he leans back and belts into the microphone, his feet straddling the piano top, thousands hold up their cell phones as makeshift lighters.
Throughout the campaign, Romney has used “Born Free” at rallies as his walkout song. Whenever he shuffles from the green room to the stage, you hear Rock’s gravelly voice describing a man “chasing dreams and racing Father Time.” Romney’s traveling press corps jokes that they now cringe when the song comes on because they’ve heard it so often. But the crowd in Manchester isn’t part of Romney’s traveling press, and they are happy to hear it live.
Kid Rock thanks the crowd, and then the CD version of “Born Free” begins to play as its lyricist walks backstage. The lights come on, and everyone knows what’s coming. Then it happens, and people crane their necks, trying to spot Mitt and Ann Romney as they enter from stage right, from a private box off to the side. They walk down the aisle and shake hands, both of them wearing white shirts, and they take their time. When they get to the bottom of the aisle, they greet Ayotte and her husband.
It’s nearly midnight in Manchester, and Dixville Notch, N.H., a tiny town up near the Canadian border, will begin to vote in less than an hour. Ben Romney, the Romneys’ doctor son, joins his mother and father onstage. For two minutes straight, the crowd doesn’t stop roaring. Whenever there is a slight downturn in volume, it picks right back up. This overwhelms Romney, who squints his eyes and smiles, unsure of whether to interrupt. Ann Romney, for her part, simply leans back and lets out a hearty, relieved laugh.
The fog from the dry ice used by Kid Rock is still floating around the arena as the roar continues. Romney keeps listening to it, even when “Born Free” stops playing. What’s left is just the man onstage with his wife and son, no music, and the sound of a crowd that seems to love him, or at the very least is thrilled to be there with the nominee on election eve.
Ann’s voice is hoarse. She’s running on fumes, and she’s beaming and weary, all at the same time. “We’re kids of Detroit, too,” she says, thanking Kid Rock for his performance. Romney doesn’t nod at this, but his eyes are alight. He has been running for president for over five years, and here he is, in front of a huge crowd, thanking Pamela Anderson’s ex-husband. But he doesn’t seem to mind. He takes a few seconds to look around the entire arena, his gaze extending all the way to the nosebleed sections.
After Ann’s brief introduction, she and Ben leave the stage. Romney watches them as they head back up the aisle, and then he walks to the podium. The crowd lifts out of their seats. Here he is, the potential president, alone onstage. His sleeves are rolled up, his navy tie is straight, and with his shiny silver temples, he looks a lot like his father, George.
“This is a special moment for Ann and me, because this is where our campaign began,” Romney says, his voice as hoarse as his wife’s. “You got this campaign started a year and a half ago at the Scamman Farm, and then your primary vote put me on the path to win the Republican nomination. And tomorrow, your votes and your work right here in New Hampshire will help me become the next president of the United States!”
Romney plows forward as the crowd applauds. Line after line, the crowd jumps up, rooting for him, urging him on. Romney tells them that their support in Manchester and at previous rallies over the past few weeks has encouraged him. “These last months of our campaign have seen the gathering strength of a real movement across the country,” he says. “It’s evident in the size of these crowds like this tonight — my goodness.”
The 13,000 people pump their fists. Romney may not have Chris Christie’s charisma, and he may use phrases like “my goodness,” but he’s their nominee. He’s their guy. They believe in him. That’s why they stood out in the cold, freezing for hours to get frisked by security. It’s why they’re standing and yelling at every Romney line as if it were the sharpest critique ever made of the Obama record.
It’s past midnight in Manchester, and they’re hopeful. So is Romney. “The president was right when he said he can’t change Washington from the inside, only from the outside,” Romney says near the end. “Let’s give him that chance!”
As the crowd rises for the last time, Romney begins to slow his words. “This is much more than our moment; it’s America’s moment,” he says. “We’re almost home. One final push, and we’ll get there. We’ve known many long days and short nights and now we’re close. The door to a brighter future is there. It’s open. It’s waiting for us.”
Romney begins to hit his right hand on the podium, emphasizing every word. “Walk with me,” he pleads. “Walk together.” A second later, he backs away and waves. As he bends down and dips arms into the crowd, grasping shoulders and outstretched hands, “Born Free” plays for one final late-night spin.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.