Supporters cheer for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in Waukesha, Wis. In a poll,… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. — This small town exudes the kind of old-fashioned American values that Mitt Romney highlighted in his convention speech. A garden club organizes bright flower displays on the streets, and residents patronize the two archery clubs, the three barber shops, the shooting range and the churches scattered among the town's leafy streets.
But some residents in this town of 3,600, located in a swing county that voted for Obama in 2008 but supported Republicans for both governor and U.S. Senate in 2010, say their concern that Romney doesn't really understand people like them has grown in recent weeks.
"I think he's a little out of touch. He has grown up as kind of an elite," said Darren Durman, who runs the Merchant General Store, a candy and toy shop in a 1912 building where Durman's great-grandfather once worked selling shoes.
Romney's recent comments about the 47% of America that doesn't pay taxes only solidified Durman's decision to support Obama, who visits the state Saturday.
"Basically, he was saying anyone that was going to vote for Obama was a deadbeat, but most of us are hardworking people," said Durman, an independent who voted for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004 and Obama in 2008.
Durman's views illustrate the problem Romney is confronting in rural areas where he is counting on overwhelming support: Voters identify him as an elite who isn't concerned about the problems of people who work for a living, the same issue that confronted Democratic nominee John F. Kerry in 2004.
Wisconsin is a state where Republicans saw an opening — besides voting for Republicans for governor and U.S. Senate in 2010, state voters turned aside an attempted recall of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in June and, in August, Romney picked Wisconsin native Paul D. Ryan as his running mate.
But recent polls show negative perceptions of Romney have climbed in recent weeks. Last month, the Marquette University Law School poll showed Obama leading Romney by three points; a poll it conducted just before the "47%" comments went public had Obama up by 14.
About 53% of Wisconsin voters said in the most recent poll that Romney does not care about people like them, while 39% said he does. Obama's numbers were reversed, with 64% saying the president cares about people like them, to 33% who said he does not. Compared with the previous month, Romney's numbers were slightly more negative and Obama's more positive.
"The empathy problem is very clear," said Charles Franklin, director of the poll. "More people in this race say 'cares about people like me' is not quite who Romney is."
Black River Falls is the seat of Jackson County, which supported Republican Gov. Scott Walker in his recall election earlier this year by eight points and barely blinked at the austerity measures put in place. Yet supportive as they are of fiscal conservatism and other Republican candidates, it was easy to find voters who draw the line at backing Romney.
"He doesn't understand the middle- and lower-class people, obviously. He's never had to be there. He's had a pretty gilded life there," said Ron Bangart, whose barbershop, Ron's, on Main Street is often full of customers from both sides of the aisle. Bangart, an independent, voted for Scott Walker in 2010, and says he supports the governor's budget cuts, as well as his going toe-to-toe with unions.
Rose Kling, a bartender in town, says she's heard many stories about people down on their luck in this economy who need help.
"They're silver spoon people. They don't know what it's like to be us," Kling, a Democrat, said of Romney and Walker. Obama, on the other hand, "is more of a normal kind of guy."
Republicans have had an opportunity in Wisconsin because the state's economy has been performing more poorly than that of surrounding states. The unemployment rate in August, 7.5%, was the highest it's been in a year. In the Marquette poll, one-third of voters said they think the national economy has gotten worse over the past year, while only 28% said they think it has improved — numbers that normally would be bad news for the incumbent.
Some voters, such as Bill Moe, who owns the 116-year-old Moe's Hardware Hank on Main Street, say that Obama's had his chance to improve the economy, and has failed. Moe, who isn't registered with a party but tends to vote Republican, will support Romney in hopes his business background can help turn the country around.
"If a man has wealth, he's usually earned it," Moe said.
Signs of the state's slow economy are easy to spot in Black River Falls, where a furniture store on Main Street that made it through the recession recently closed its doors. Drywaller John Byrd, 44, says business has soured this year after picking up a bit in the last.
"People are really keeping their pocketbooks tight," he said.
The American Future Fund, a conservative political action committee, has tried to draw attention to the state's poor economy with an ad that criticizes Obama for letting a GM plant in Janesville close. (The closure was actually announced before he was elected.)
In many small towns, "the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight," the ad says. That line is spoken by Ryan, not Romney, who is not appearing in any campaign ads in the state.
But it would take more than that to sway people such as Vicki Patterson and E. Jason Billyard, independent voters who own an art and glass shop in Black River Falls. Both say they "vote for the best guy for the job," rather than for one party. Sitting in their quiet shop on a recent weekday, as a bat flew in to create the morning's excitement, both said they planned to vote for Obama.
"Romney represents the Republican upper class, and he hasn't said anything to show me differently," Patterson said.