Mitt Romney at a campaign stop in Tunkhannock, Pa. (Jake Danna Stevens / Scranton…)
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Mitt Romney's shift from Republican primary partisan to general election candidate has begun in earnest. On the rooftop of an old office building that houses his Pennsylvania headquarters, Romney signaled the start of his effort to appeal to voters in the middle of the political spectrum, who will be critical to his chances in a race against President Obama.
"I know that you know how important this is. That it isn't about one person or about even one party," Romney told a group of supporters Thursday under flawless skies. "We're Republicans and Democrats in this campaign, but we're all connected with one destiny for America, and that destiny is greatness and exceptionalism."
The call for unity had a strange ring after months of a Republican slugfest that has also demonized Democratic leaders and seems finally to have produced a likely nominee in Romney.
In the last couple of days, Romney has virtually ignored his remaining GOP rivals, engaging instead in a back-and-forth with Obama over which of the two is more out of touch with average Americans. On Thursday, he again hit the president for his Ivy League credentials — credentials that they share.
"We have a president who I think is a nice guy," Romney said, "but he spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps, or maybe just not enough time working in the real world."
It is a potentially self-defeating line of attack: Romney spent four years at Harvard, receiving a law degree and an MBA; Obama spent three years there, graduating from the law school. Also, three of Romney's five sons attended Harvard Business School.
Later Thursday, in a part of the state where a natural gas drilling boom has bolstered the economy, Romney found another point in common with the president. In response to a reporter's question, Romney said he believed women should be admitted to the Augusta National Golf Club.
"Well, of course," he said. "I'm not a member of Augusta. I don't know if I would qualify — my golf game is not that good — but certainly if I were a member and I could run Augusta, which isn't likely to happen, but of course I'd have women in Augusta. Sure."
Obama, an avid golfer, believes the same thing, his spokesman said earlier in the day.
During a speech at a company that transports fluids used in the energy extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, Romney criticized Obama's "all of the above" approach to energy production — meaning oil, gas and coal as well as green technologies such as solar and wind power.
"I realize he probably meant he's for all of the energy sources that come from above the ground, not the coal, oil and gas that come from below," Romney said. "I am for everything that comes from above and everything that comes from below."
Len Crawford, owner of Crawford Technical Services, said that he didn't necessarily blame the president for the fact that 40% of his company's revenues go toward payroll taxes and other employee contributions, but that he was looking forward to electing a Republican president who would be more sensitive to the needs of business.
"I think he can win," Crawford said of Romney. "He's doing a better job of articulating free enterprise than he has in the past."
Romney's speeches on Wednesday and Thursday have had the air of a victory lap after a trio of important wins this week in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia. But Thursday he seemed to hedge a bit, telling reporters who watched him call supporters from a phone bank that he expected former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to carry the state on April 24.
"I think everybody expects someone to win his home state," Romney said, sitting between campaign volunteers Jordan Furr, 20, and Sherrie-Kaye Miller, 51, who did their best not to let his presence distract them from their phone calls to likely Republican voters. "Newt Gingrich won his home state; I won mine."
But Romney said he hoped to "pick up a lot of delegates" in Pennsylvania, and also win the other states holding contests that day, to give him "an even stronger lead."
As soon as Romney had entered the small phone bank room, he sat down and began making calls. He did not acknowledge the four volunteers on the phone bank until after he'd made his calls.
Romney called three voters, all of whom were apparently already planning to vote for him. "These are obviously stacked calls," he said. "I am getting very positive response."
His side of the first call went like this: "Good morning, Lois. This is Mitt Romney calling. How are you this morning? Well, good. Have you ever heard of me? You have, huh? [He laughed.] Well, thank you. It sounds like you plan on supporting me, is that right? Well, wonderful. I appreciate your willingness to help out.... I will hopefully get a chance to see you at a rally someday. Thanks so much Lois. Bye-bye."
Lois "was a person who said she believes I am the right person to be president, that I can save the country," he told reporters afterward. "I thought that was a pretty good start."