Republican Mitt Romney’s first 2012 campaign visit to Linn County had the feel of a family get-together.
He shook hands and hugged supporters from his 2008 bid for the GOP presidential nomination and posed for countless pictures with his extended family members who were chowing down on hot dogs and homemade salads and desserts at a rural Fairfax farm.
“The excitement is still here,” said Rep. Renee Schulte, R-Cedar Rapids, who worked for Romney in 2008 and is a co-leader of the current Iowa campaign.
“It is like a family reunion,” she said as Romney worked the crowd at the Linn and Johnson County GOP picnic. “He’s seeing a lot of old friends.”
The former Massachusetts governor is hoping to make a few more – enough to win the Iowa caucuses – this time. He carried Linn and Jonson counties, but former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee carried the state.
Romney is starting in a different place this year, according to Schulte and Brian Kennedy, the other co-leader of Romney’s Iowa campaign.
In 2008, then the defining issue was the war, said Kennedy. This year, it’s the economy.
“Four years ago, he said it was about the economy,” Schulte said, “and four years later it’s still the economy.”
That plays to Romney’s strength both in the caucuses and in the general election, said Kennedy, a Quad Cities attorney and former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.
Romney left no doubt that’s the way he plans to frame the contest.
It won’t be easy beating President Barack Obama, “but he has failed when it comes to creating jobs,” said Romney, a former businessman.
Standing on bales in the hay mow of a 94-year-old barn, Romney charged Obama has “done almost everything wrong when it comes to creating jobs.”
Romney will focus on the economy and what he views as the failures of the Obama administration to create the certainty needed to solidify private-sector business investments and new hirings rather than relying on a European model that relies on government to stimulate jobs and growth.
His “business sense” and experience appealed to Burnita Aschbrenner of Cedar Rapids.
“He won’t destroy the economy,” added Phil Lowden, also of Cedar Rapids, who worked on the Romney campaign four years ago.
The economy may be the No. 1 issue with voters, said Steve Armstrong of rural Cedar Rapids, chairman of the Linn County GOP. However, he believes Republicans are looking for a candidate who can lead and win.
“That will trump all issues,” Armstrong said, as he helped serve the potluck picnic dinner. “Most of us are of the belief it will take as strong leader to deal with the debt and deficit.
“Republicans,” he said, “believe that’s putting a damper on the economy.”
That pressing need for an economic turnaround is an issue “in my wheelhouse” as a business leader in contrast to President Barack Obama’s “misguided” policies that are impeding job growth and financial rebound, Romney earlier in the day at a forum in Des Moines.
Before that forum at the State Historical Building was cut short by a fire alarm, Romney, 64, who will formally announce his 2012 GOP presidential bid next week in New Hampshire, told more than 200 Iowans there they can expect to see him frequently in the months ahead, but probably not as often as 2007 when he showered the state with time and money that netted him a disappointing second-place finish in Iowa four years ago.
“Right now the issue that Americans are most concerned about happens to be in my wheelhouse,” said Romney, who served in corporate posts and helped steer the successful 2002 Winter Olympic Games. “What I know and what I’ve spent my life doing is particularly relevant right now.”
He contrasted that with Obama’s more than two years in the White House.
“With the economy going down, with tumult in the world, we picked as our president someone with no experience in the private sector, no experience in the economy, no experience in negotiations, no real experience in leadership,” Romney said. “You see, to create jobs, it helps to have actually had a job.
“We picked this president, kind of an experiment to see what would happen if we chose someone without experience to lead the nation, and it didn’t work out real well,” he added.
In the private sector, if you borrow too much, you go out of business, Romney said. Government, on the other hand, has over borrowed and continues to “sort of kick the can down the road” but he said at some point “the piper has to be paid” at that time is rapidly approaching unless the fiscal direction is changed in Washington.
“We’re at a point of time in history where we’ve been borrowing too long assuming that our spending can go on without any wake up call and that’s arrived,” he said, “because, at some point soon, we’re going to hit that wall and the things we rely upon from the government are going to be in trouble.”