Norfolk, Va. — After months of speculation, Mitt Romney will formally announce his vice-presidential pick this morning, here at the USS Wisconsin, a hulking steel battleship. A large crowd has already shuffled in, and many are carrying homemade Romney-Ryan signs. Secret Service agents are everywhere. And on this asphalt dock, the enthusiasm for the young Wisconsin congressman is palpable.
At 7:54 a.m., the loudspeakers begin to crackle, and Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” starts to play. For the first song at the first Romney-Ryan rally, it’s an apt choice. “He was a Midwestern boy on his own,” Seger sings, with “those soft eyes so innocent and blue.” Steps away, a couple mothers sway to the tune.
Former Virginia senator (and current candidate) George Allen appears on the scene around 8:05 a.m., and mingles with local Republicans for a few minutes. From behind the rope line, I ask him about the Ryan pick. “It’s good,” he says, smiling. “Real good.” He then strolls away, looking for a seat by the podium.
At 8:30 a.m., during the opening prayer, the faint hum of an engine can be heard. The Democrats’ reaction to the veep has already begun. A tiny blue plane circles the battleship, taunting the crowd, which is mostly families and veterans. The banner trailing its tail: “Mitt Romney — Get Your Hand Out of My Pocket.”
Allen takes the podium around 8:40 a.m. Like the state Republicans who spoke before him, he praises Romney but doesn’t mention Ryan. It seems the speakers have been told to stay mum until Romney and Ryan arrive. Allen’s remarks last for a good 10 minutes, and it’s a stump speech, for the most part.
At 8:48 a.m., the Portman statement hits inboxes: “Mitt Romney has made a great choice in Paul Ryan,” he writes. “Paul is one of my best friends in Congress and someone I have worked closely with as a former colleague on the House Ways and Means Committee. Jane and I wish Paul and Janna and their kids the very best.”
Supportive statements from other prominent pols, such as Speaker Boehner and Newt Gingrich, soon pour in.
Five minutes before 9:00 a.m., after Allen wraps up, the Virginia stars depart. The easy-listening rock tunes, such as “Life is a Highway,” start to play again. The crowd moves around — everyone is trying to find a comfortable spot. One of those folks is Representative Randy Forbes, one of Ryan’s House colleagues. “I’ve known Paul for years,” he tells me. “He’s going to keep us off of the fiscal cliff. He has guts.” But what does he bring to the ticket, I ask. “Energy,” Forbes says.
A couple minutes later, I walk around the bustling crowd. The breeze from the Chesapeake Bay is blowing the miniature American flags. The bulky rifles of the Wisconsin are pointing out toward the water, and the ship is decorated with red, white, and blue banners. It feels like the Fourth of July, or Veterans Day. “Patriotism” and “upbeat” are the two words that spring to mind.
Scott Rhyne is here with his two young daughters. “I’m a stay at home dad,” he says. He pauses for a second. “I’m one of those people this president put out of a job.” He doesn’t known much about Ryan — “don’t know the name” — but he’s interested in learning more. “I was hoping for our governor, Bob McDonnell, or another southerner, but I’m going to start paying more attention,” he says.
At 9:09 a.m., Governor McDonnell, a onetime vice-presidential contender and a veteran, takes the stage. He raised his family a few miles away, so this is home turf. He gets a warm reception. President Obama “does not understand the free-enterprise system and we need a change,” he says, to cheers. He argues that the GOP ticket has a “Reagan-Romney” vision, and praises Romney’s character.
And then it happens. At 9:19 a.m., Romney takes the stage alone as booming orchestral music fills the dock. He takes his time coming off of the ship, walks down a plank, and then up to the stage. He’s all smiles, and he left the jacket on the bus. It’s just Romney in a white shirt, blue tie, and slacks. He praises Ryan’s “Midwestern” work ethic and his “steadiness.” He acknowledges that Ryan works inside the Beltway, but Ryan is “rooted” in Janesville, Wis., he says.
“In a city that is far too often characterized by pettiness and personal attacks, Paul Ryan is a shining exception,” Romney says. “He does not demonize his opponents. He understands that honorable people can have honest differences. And he appeals to the better angels of our nature. There are a lot of people in the other party who might disagree with Paul Ryan; I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t respect his character and judgment.”
At the end of his introduction, Romney mistakenly introduces Ryan as the “next president.” He leaves the stage without correcting himself. A few seconds later, after Ryan takes the podium, he rushes back and puts his arm around his veep. He laughs and says that he’s known for making a few verbal stumbles — a comment the crowd loves. He calls Ryan the next vice president of the United States.
“I did not make a mistake with this guy,” Romney chuckles.
A roar ensues. Ryan, dressed in an open white shirt and black suit, begins his speech. “America is more than just a place — it’s an idea,” he says. “It’s the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and God, not government.” Chants of U-S-A, U-S-A break out. Ryan beams.
“We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes,” Ryan says. “This idea is founded on the principles of liberty, freedom, free enterprise, self-determination and government by consent of the governed. This idea is under assault. So, we have a critical decision to make as a nation.”
And so it went. But what about the takeaway on the ground?
Ryan started a tad slow in his tone and demeanor — it wasn’t all rah-rah and red meat. But he slowly eased his way into his speech, picking up speed and volume as he progressed. Ryan may not be a rousing speaker, but he knows how to hit his marks. “We can turn this thing around,” he said near the end. “Real solutions can be delivered. But it will take leadership. And the courage to tell you the truth.”
A minute later, Ryan’s wife, Janna, and his kids joined him on stage. Romney and his wife, Ann, followed. “Born Free” by Kid Rock blasted from the loudspeakers and Romney and Ryan dove into the crowd, shaking hands. The chemistry between the pair was evident, but what really made an impression was the reaction of veterans and suburban moms to Ryan. He doesn’t enthrall on the stump, but he connects. They don’t all know him well, but they like him, and they are excited.
The view from the press pen
6:30 a.m. — A long line waits to enter the event:
7:00 a.m. — The crowd files onto the dock alongside the USS Wisconsin:
8:07 a.m. — George Allen meets local Republicans:
8:32 a.m. — The crowd builds, as does the suspense:
8:57 a.m. — Welcome to primetime, congressman:
9:19 a.m. — Romney introduces Ryan:
9:25 a.m. — Romney and Ryan embrace:
9:37 a.m. — Ryan makes his case: