COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA — As he’s pivoted back to a campaign focused almost entirely on President Obama, Mitt Romney has raised the alarm: 2012, he says, is about nothing less than the very “soul of America.”
Iowans I talked to at two of Romney’s campaign stops Sunday were in full agreement. So I asked them what scares them about a second Obama term. I got answers ranging from the creep of socialism to concerns that Obama’s best-known vice will encourage kids to take up smoking.
Romney’s emphasis is on the former. Lost in most of the reporting on Romney’s push toward the finish line in Iowa — which has mostly focused on the way his allies have used millions in negative advertising to vanquish his GOP enemies — is what a Romney stump speech sounds like. And as he has for weeks now, Romney is telling Iowans to be wary of what he says is Obama’s plan to turn the “merit-based” America into an America of “entitlements,” where the government doles out the rewards regardless of effort.
His rhetoric casts the contest with Obama as nothing less than an existential struggle for America’s future.
“I think President Obama…looks to Europe,” Romney said at a rally here.
[He] sees the European welfare state as perhaps being the more appropriate model. An entitlement society, where the role of government is increasingly to take from someone to give to others. That would deaden the American spirit. That would substitute envy for ambition. It would poison the very spirit of America that allows us to be one nation under god.
What voters will get with Romney instead, he said, is a man who “loves this country” and “loves the principles upon which it was founded.”
“This is an election about a choice of direction or America,” Romney continued. “Not just policies, but a choice of whether we’re going to remain true to the principles that made us who we are or instead we’re going to take a sharp turn left and become something that we would hardly recognize.”
Everything is on the line, Romney says.
“This is a campaign for the soul of America,” he said more than once Sunday.
Of course, all this is properly vague, in keeping with the kind of rhetoric you’d expect. So I asked the people in the crowd what they thought the fight for the “soul of America” meant.
“I think a lot of people have lost the idea of what America really stands for,” Connie Burns, a Middle School teacher from Atlantic, Iowa, told me at a Romney stop. “Which is the freedom, opportunity, basics to provide for your family.”
Burns said she doesn’t think Obama doesn’t believe in the “spirit of America,” but she said the president has “his own idea of what America should be” and said she’s scared of a second Obama term.
I asked her for specifics. “My husband, who’s a military man, is worried about how the military is going to be handled,” she said. “I just worry about the economy and the future.”
So this is not the kind of Obama terror found among the the tea party rallies of 2010. But Burns exemplified a real fear of the president that many Republicans in Iowa say will help to drive turnout higher on Tuesday.
Others in the Romney crowds channeled Romney’s message that Obama was shifting the nation into something very different than it is today.
“I think he’s turning our country into a socialist state. I think he just wants big government and just wants to take over,” said Barbara Bonnes, a retiree from Glenwood, Iowa in the crowd for Romney’s speech in Council Bluffs. She perceived a creep into health care that concerns her. Obama’s second term would leave America “a whole nanny country,” she said.
Donna Conn of Council Bluffs has backed Romney since 2008. She was standing among a group of women, one of which pointed out Romney’s “a non-smoker” when we got to talking about what Romney can bring to the White House that other candidates for president can’t.
“It’s not that [Obama] doesn’t care,” Conn said. “He doesn’t understand. I don’t think Obama understands what the soul of America is. Because he wants everybody that has money to give it to other people that don’t have money without working for it. I’m sorry, if I earned my money I want to be able to spend it the way I want to spend it.”
Jay Sillau, an undecided voter from Council Bluffs who’s leaning “60% to Mitt”, cut Obama a little more slack.
“I think Obama cares about the country, but I don’t think he has the right vision from what we’ve traditionally done to be successful,” he said. “I have no doubt Obama believes what he’s doing is correct, but it’s never worked before. It didn’t work with Jimmy Carter, and it hasn’t worked now.”