Romney bus tour rolls into a wee Wawa problem
White House hopeful Mitt Romney spent Saturday courting small-town Americans and pushing his jobs agenda, but a botched campaign stop showed it isn't always easy connecting with everyday voters.
After laying out the case for a Romney presidency at a factory in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Republican flagbearer headed to a Wawa gas station in Quakertown for a brief chance to meet locals and travelers as part of his six-state bus tour through the US industrial heartland.
It wasn't to be -- or at least not as the campaign had planned. An hour ahead of Romney's scheduled arrival, prominent Democrat Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, showed up to lead anti-Romney protests.
A local news report said between 150 and 250 anti-Romney protesters were there, substantially outnumbering the candidate's supporters about half an hour before Romney's scheduled 12:40 arrival.
And so the campaign improvised, shuttling him to another Wawa gas station about three miles (five kilometers) away for a stop last barely 10 minutes.
Romney stepped off his bus and surprised some people clearly not expecting to see him. He walked into the food mart to order a meatball hoagie sandwich, and tried to use humor to downplay the incident.
"I understand I had a surrogate over there already, so we decided to pick a different place," Romney said in reference to Rendell, a supporter of President Barack Obama but who nonetheless recently made comments critical of the incumbent.
After Obama attacked Romney's record at private equity firm Bain Capital, Rendell joined other high-profile Democrats in saying such criticism of American free enterprise was misguided.
The gas station incident, which quickly earned the mocking nickname "Wawagate," underscores the hyper-competitive nature of the Obama-Romney race as the two jockey for position four and a half months ahead of November's election.
The candidates have been chasing each other across key battleground states like Ohio, where they each gave economic speeches within an hour of one another, but the tactic is not thought to have forced the abandonment of a campaign event until now.
The Romney campaign describes all six states on the bus tour as "battlegrounds," although forecasters and pollsters put Pennsylvania in Obama's column.
And yet a bullish Romney told a crowd at his final campaign event of the day, in the town of Cornwall, that Pennsylvanians had grown so tired of Obama policy that the Republican had more than just a shot at victory here, as a local lawmaker had described his chances.
"I've got news for you, congressman, I am going to win Pennsylvania!" he boomed.
Romney's message Saturday hinged on his pledge to spur dramatic US business growth and provide far more jobs than his rival.
US unemployment crept up last month to 8.2 percent, and Romney has used the worrying data as a club to bludgeon the Obama administration over its policies to turn around the sluggish economy.
"Job one in this country is to create jobs for the American people, and I will," Romney told more than 500 supporters at an alloy factory in Weatherly.
States that he is visiting, including New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin, have been hard-hit by a hollowing out of manufacturing and other jobs that was only made worse by the 2008 recession.
Romney, the multimillionaire ex-governor of Massachusetts, has long called for lower taxes on businesses, particularly small to medium enterprises that form the majority of US companies, less regulations and a repeal of Obama's signature health care reform law.
He argues that such steps would bring stability to employers and generate a wave of new hires, creating a knock-on effect that could bring economic gains to millions of struggling working-class Americans.
Pro-Obama demonstrators at the Wawa sought to expose Romney as a job-killer, however, as they highlighted his controversial career at the head of Bain Capital.
Several held signs with the message: "Buy a company. Fire workers. Walk away with millions."
Romney has laid into Obama for his recent comment that the US private sector was "doing fine," and argued it showed the president was in over his head.
"He's basically saying his campaign theme is, 'It could be worse,'" former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has been an anti-Obama attack dog of sorts for Romney, told the Cornwall crowd.
"I got news for the president. It's pretty bad."