West Des Moines, Iowa — Mitt Romney returned to Iowa like the conquering hero he never was, rallying an enthusiastic crowd in support of Republican Senate nominee Joni Ernst, who leads one of the most crucial races in the country by one point.
“She’s going to be an extraordinary breath of fresh air in Washington,” Romney told the crowd gathered Sunday evening in the foyer of the Farm Bureau Headquarters to rally for Joni Ernst, the pig-castrating breakout star of the 2014 midterm elections. It was Romney’s second visit to Iowa this year. “We send a lot of people to Washington who can talk great, but they don’t know how to lead,” Romney said. “Iowa’s going to be sending a great leader to the United States Senate.”
Iowa has given Romney, who suffered upsets in the 2008 and 2012 caucuses, only grief in his political career. The state also voted for President Obama in 2012, helping to send Romney to a defeat that he predicted would brand him a “loser for life.”
What a difference two years makes. Obama’s popularity has cratered in the state that launched his presidential candidacy, to the point that Representative Bruce Braley (D., Iowa), Ernst’s opponent, doesn’t want to appear on the trail with him. The more popular Michelle Obama tried to recapture the magic last week, but even she carries some risks. “She’s awesome, but it just brings in the name Obama,” a Democratic strategist told the New York Times.
Romney endorsed Ernst during the Republican primary and campaigned with her in May, helping her build a coalition that trounced a better-funded opponent.
Sunday evening, the former Republican presidential nominee didn’t shy away from his recent defeat, instead enjoying how the political environment has changed. “[Obama] said in this race that his policies are on the ballot,” Romney reminded the audience. “Now, I know that Iowa voted for President Obama twice, but Iowa is not going vote for Bill Braley and vote for him a third time, that’s for sure.”
The crowd laughed, apparently catching that Romney had called Braley by the wrong first name, but applauding the larger point. Romney didn’t let the mistake faze him, simply emphasizing moments later that “Bruce Braley has the same political philosophy as President Obama.”
Liberals can’t very well snigger at the mistake, given how Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton both recently flubbed Braley’s name by calling him “Bailey.” Even if they were to do so, Romney might not be ruffled. He made clear that he felt more comfortable in his role as a surrogate than he had as a candidate, opening his speech with a joke about President Obama.
“When you’re running for office, people tell you that you shouldn’t tell jokes; well, I’m not running for office, so I can tell them,” Mitt Romney told the crowd. As the joke goes, Obama attempts to cash a check at a bank, but he forgot his ID. The bank teller asks if he can do something to verify his identity. For instance, when Phil Mickelson came in without his ID, he putted a golf ball into a cup; Andre Agassi, in a similar pickle, hit tennis balls off a target on the wall.
“Is there anything you can do to prove who you are?” the bank teller asks.
“I don’t have a clue,” the fictitious Obama replies.
“And she said, ‘Mr. President, do you want your money in small bills or large bills?’” Romney said, deftly delivering the punch line.
This is not the stiff, humorless Romney of the 2012 election, who privately conceded that he gave up on being funny because his jokes inevitably caused somebody to take offense.
Romney’s visit came a day after Ernst and Braley met Saturday night for their second debate of the general election. The latest Des Moines Register poll shows Ernst clinging to a 47–46 lead; two weeks ago, Ernst led 44–38.
At the rally, Ernst hit Braley for voting for “one of the largest tax increases in United States history.” “Boo!” she added. Where Iowa state government launched a “reopen Iowa for business tour,” Braley, she noted, supported Obamacare, cap-and-trade (“which would be detrimental to our Iowa agriculture as well as raising utility rates on every single Iowan”), and other regulations. “We do not need any more Washington bureaucracy coming out of D.C. and landing here in the state of Iowa,” Ernst insisted.
The Republican Senate hopeful’s most powerful broadside against Braley focused on military issues. She’s an Army National Guard reservist who served in Iraq a decade ago, and she took two weeks off from the campaign trail to go back and do Guard duty.
“Twice, he voted to defund our troops as they were serving in combat, leaving our service-members vulnerable if that had passed,” Ernst said. “He will try and deny it now, but what he was doing was putting politics ahead of our men and women in uniform, and that is absolutely not acceptable.”
Braley disputed that charge during the debate. “What I voted for was to end a decade-long commitment of U.S. troops, and I made it very clear that I supported pay increases for those troops and was not going to defund them, and Senator Ernst also knows that the vote she’s talking about was a bipartisan vote where Republicans and Democrats had concerns about who we were going to be helping and what threat we were going to be addressing,” he said.
Ernst also hammered Braley for skipping more than 75 percent of Veterans Affairs Committee hearings during 2012, a charge that has dogged him throughout the campaign. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and outside groups have attacked Braley on television for missing the meetings.
Braley has a humbler critic in John Strong, a 73-year-old veteran who attends the Sunday Ernst rally with a cloth duck under his arm, meant to evoke Braley’s habit of ducking Veterans Affairs Committee hearings. Iowans were introduced to Strong on a Saturday television broadcast about veterans who want the Senate candidates to provide more details on their plans to help retired service-members. “Most people give lip service to helping veterans, but sometimes it’s hard to get something done,” Strong said in the TV interview. The segment didn’t reveal his staunch support for Ernst. The reporter who did the interview “made it nonpartisan,” he said.
At the Farm Bureau rally, Ernst took up Strong’s complaint in a blistering denunciation of Braley’s record on veterans’ issues. “At a time when he could have made an impact, he left 120,000 American veterans hanging out to dry, without the health care, not only that they deserved, but they had earned with their honorable service to this great nation,” Ernst said.
Romney’s newfound popularity fosters rumors of another presidential bid, despite his denials. He didn’t try to tamp down on those rumors directly, though, at least not at this event.
After Ernst’s speech, Romney shook hands and signed autographs, but, despite being chased by reporters and a woman who says the former governor had borrowed her Sharpie, Romney ducked out a side door.
“Why would he do that?” she asks.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.