Mitt Romney signs autographs for waitresses during a campaign stop at the… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Reporting from Rockford, Ill. —
The family, spread across Illinois, picked a convenient location for a Sunday lunch to celebrate Kathy Sondgeroth's 59th birthday. Turns out, it was convenient for Mitt Romney too.
When they found out Romney was campaigning at the restaurant, they held on to their table, which was right in front of a fake barn and also the photo-perfect backdrop for the Republican presidential front-runner. Romney, noticing they were celebrating a birthday, led the restaurant in singing. And when he left, he hoisted 7-month-old Stryder.
If the Sondgeroths had been a focus group, the campaign would have taken away a clear message: Romney could win over more of those voters who are leaning, but not committed, if he could just appear as comfortable and as presidential on TV as he seems to be in person.
After he spoke, the six adults all said they planned to vote for the former Massachusetts governor.
"I think he's got the best message, and he way he can deliver it," said Steven Sondgeroth, 57, a corn and soybean farmer in La Moille, who said he was struck by how different Romney seemed in person. "He's more presidential in his charisma."
Romney made his second stop of the day at the Machine Shed Restaurant, part of a Midwestern chain that began in Davenport, Iowa, and is decorated with old farm tools and signs. The restaurant appears to have two slogans, one boasting, "A restaurant honoring the American farmer," and another asserting, "Farming is Everyone's Bread & Butter."
Accompanied by his wife, Ann, who worked another room while he spoke, Romney stuck to the main theme he has been stressing lately, that President Obama and Romney's three Republican competitors are "economic lightweights," while he is an "economic heavyweight."
Citing his 25 years in business, Romney said he is the only candidate who can beat Obama. "It's going to take someone who understand the economy in his bones, and I do," he said.
Before speaking inside, Romney clambered onto a wooden wagon and spoke to more than 300 supporters and one vocal Obama supporter in the parking lot. Asked by a reporter how he was feeling about Illinois, which votes Tuesday, he said, "Terrific," stretching it out and rushing off.
The five Sondgeroths and Carl Gustafson, 29, who is married to a Sondgeroth, made the same observations when explaining their reactions to Romney's speech. They were drawn both by how down-to-earth he appeared and how presidential he sounded.
"We might have been a little undecided, but I think our decision was made today," Steven Sondgeroth said. "I can imagine him in front of a group of congressmen."
Sondgeroth said he thought Romney got right to the point and didn't spend time running down his opponents. He was disappointed, though, that Romney did not address agricultural issues, such as subsidies for ethanol, an important subject in the region.
"Now that we've heard him speak, we'll say we're probably all the way there," said Gustafson, who works in consumer finance and described Romney's speech as "commanding."
Gustafson's wife, Connie, 28, who works in human resources for a hospital, described Romney as personable and said, "I like his down-to-earth tactics."
Craig Sondgeroth, 26, who farms and practices law, said he believes that Romney has the best chance to win, noting that he has geographical ties in the West, Midwest and New England and that most of the South will vote for whoever becomes the Republican nominee. "To me, it seems clear he's the only candidate who can beat Barack Obama," he said.
Kyle Sondgeroth, 30, a fourth-grade teacher, said he likes Romney's business background but wanted to hear more about his views on education and unfunded mandates.
"I really came away impressed with his room presence," he said.
'Presidential' Romney wins over Illinois family