Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The kernel of 2012 U.S. election

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ARBUTUS, Maryland -- Seeking what the poet Marianne Moore called "the kind of tame excitement on which I thrive," I am climbing up a long, steep driveway to an American Legion hall in the suburbs of Baltimore to watch Mitt Romney give a speech.

I soon catch up to a woman in a red T-shirt who is struggling with the grade. On the back of her shirt is a quotation from the putative next-president of the United States: WE BELIEVE IN A PLACE THAT CHALLENGES EACH OF US TO BE BIGGER AND BETTER THAN OURSELVES.

On the front of the shirt is the outline of the lower 48 states, Romney's Universal Resource Locator and the single word: BELIEVE.

"Are you fired up and ready to go?" I ask the woman, whose name is Joan Wood and who turns out to be a member of the ominously named Central Committee of the Republican Party of Baltimore County.

("Fired up!" and "Ready to go!" are the bellows Barack Obama uses to inflame a crowd.)

"Oh yeah, sure," she replies breathlessly. "Really fired up."

"Why Romney?" I ask.

"Cause he has business sense, leadership ability, and he's an all-around good guy."

"Do you have $250 million?" I ask Ms. Wood as we huff up the hill. Romney does, or at least he did until he started frittering away his fortune on television ads attacking rival Rick Santorum as a tax-loving, bailout-backing, deficit-boosting loser.

"I wish I had two hundred fifty million," she answers. "I wish I had two hundred fifty thousand."

She pauses for air.

"Two hundred fifty dollars, I got."

"I don't know about everyone," Wood continues, "but I'll tell you why my brother-in-law isn't fired up about him. It's because he's a Mormon, and that's not even an issue as far as I'm concerned. Some people just don't understand the Mormon religion."

"Do you understand the Mormon religion?" I ask her.

"A little," she replies. "A lot of people think it's a cult. I do not. A lot of that stuff is made up and exaggerated. I don't care what he is. All I want to know is, how are you going to fix the deficit?"

"You could help by not going on Medicare," I note. At 63, Wood is two years away from the same type of universal government health insurance -- Rick Santorum calls it "ObamaRomneyCare" -- the Republican Party vehemently opposes for anyone who is 64.999 or younger, even though their probable nominee pretty much invented it. Romney turned 65 a couple of weeks ago and declined the coverage for himself.

"I don't like handouts," Wood sniffs.

"Will you accept a social security cheque?" I press her.

"I get it now."

"Isn't that a handout?"

"Maybe. Probably."

Who has the time on a weekday afternoon to come to an American Legion hall to hear Romney give the same speech he has been giving every day for the past six years?

Here in Arbutus, Md., it's an overflow crowd of about 500 middle-aged, elderly and really elderly white folks who, like black folks and young folks and all folks, will get one vote apiece in this week's Maryland primary and one vote apiece in November.

Inside the hall, a young man (he is about my age) comes up to chat and gives his name as John Alden.

I recognize this immediately as one of the most venerable monickers in American history; in fact, it was John Alden of the Pilgrim ship Mayflower who is said to have been the very first Englishman to disembark at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.

That was in 1620, or only 382 years before Mitt Romney was elected governor and became the Tommy Douglas of Beantown.

The latter-day John Alden tells me he is an 11th-generation descendant of America's original illegal immigrant, that he had a long and successful career as a business and educational consultant, and that he "really appreciates the way Mitt Romney goes about his thinking."

"I've automated a lot of jobs out of existence myself," Alden says, "but probably not as many as Mitt has."

"Do you have $250 million?" I ask.

"A couple of decimal points over," he smiles.

"Why Romney?" I wonder.

"The choice is stark," he replies. "We've got to get our house in order. We've got to get our social house in order, and I don't mean the crap that's been going on among the Republican contenders. I mean community, family; the things that built this country, not the horrible contentious political world that we live in now."

The lights come up -- Mitt Romney's chartered Mayflower has landed.

"If Rick Santorum wins the nomination, I'll vote for Obama," John Alden says in parting. "As a human being, I like him. He's a charming, human, wonderful guy. But he has no idea how to run the biggest economy in the world."

Multiply this sentiment 30 million times and this is the kernel of the 2012 election: the modest, malleable voters who either will make Romney the 45th president or keep sailing with the 44th and who have, until today, said very little out loud in the public space. But this is not indifference.

"The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence," wrote Marianne Moore. "Not in silence, but restraint."

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2012 A10

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