DUBUQUE, Iowa — President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney converged in Dubuque Saturday during the closing stretch of the presidential campaign to sway a shrinking segment of swing voters in Iowa and neighboring Wisconsin. Both campaigns bet their most valuable resource—their limited schedules—that Iowa’s six electoral votes could determine the country’s next leader.
“Why do you think you are the epicenter of the political universe today?” said Ben Lange, the GOP nominee in Iowa’s first congressional district, as he joined Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad at Republican party headquarters in Dubuque to fire up about 40 volunteers before Romney’s rally. “As goes Eastern Iowa, so goes the nation.”
Branstad remains laser-focused on flipping Democratic control of the state Senate, and he stressed that Romney needs to finish strong in Eastern Iowa to boost down-ticket candidates.
“Dubuque is critically important. Historically, this is a Democratic county,” Branstad said. “It’s been a difficult county for Republicans. Abraham Lincoln didn’t carry Dubuque!”
In 2008 President Obama carried Dubuque county by 9,960 votes (59 percent of the 48,245 votes cast). Since then, the county has slowly, slightly and steadily trended Republican. In 2010, Branstad lost the county by 750 votes as he ousted Democratic Gov. Chet Culver amid a national GOP wave. From early Nov. 2008 to early Nov. 2012, Republicans increased their ranks to 24 percent of registered voters in Dubuque county from 21 percent, Democrats dropped to 40 percent from 44 percent, and independents inched up to 36 percent from 25 percent.
County election officials said about 40 percent of the electorate has already voted, not counting those that cast their ballots Saturday.
“It’s most telling that Barack Obama, on the last weekend of the campaign, is having to come to Dubuque to defend his turf. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are running extremely well across Eastern Iowa, the swing part of this swing state,” said Brian Kennedy, the chairman of Romney’s Iowa campaign. “Obama is trying to pump up his base, but the fact that his base isn’t pumped up yet is his problem.”
David Cushman, the chair of the county GOP, cited the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 as a turning point in the campaign’s local voter contacts. He said independent voters and split-party households in the “soft suburbia” portions of Dubuque county, including Asbury and Peosta, started to shift toward the Romney camp.
Cushman, who manages his family’s winery in Bankston, said that Obama’s best possible Election Day scenario is a 7,000 vote margin in Dubuque county; his worst case scenario is a 3,000 vote edge over Romney.
“Our goal is to find our strongest areas and grow our margins there and boost turnout while keeping margins close in competitive areas like Dubuque,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, who dismissed recent Iowa polls showing Obama with a slight statewide lead. “There’s a really great way to find out whether the polls are right or not: let’s have a vote on Tuesday and find out.”
At local party headquarters, Branstad tailored his message to working class Catholics, who make up more than 65 percent of Dubuque’s population. He slammed the president’s hyper-partisan approach to health care, particularly his refusal to carve out exemptions for Catholic institutions opposed to certain forms of contraceptives and abortion.
“The signature accomplishment of this administration was to push through, on a partisan basis, Obamacare,” said Branstad, Iowa’s first Catholic governor. “It is unaffordable and unattainable. We have a better approach in Iowa. The way we’re going to be the healthiest state in the nation is to get people to take ownership of their own health.”
Iowa’s mustachioed governor praised Paul Ryan for his bold, bipartisan approach to reforming entitlement spending and touted the symbolism of electing a pro-life Catholic as vice president.
Iowa has been “reducing taxes, reducing regulation, cutting government spending, and reducing the size and cost of government,” Branstad said. “What have [Obama's] buddies from Illinois been doing? They have the biggest unfunded liability in their pension system of all 50 states. They have the most state and local debt per capita of any state. What was their answer? The same thing that Obama wants to do at the national level: raise taxes.”
“We will be financially worse off than Greece if we have four more years of this administration,” he added.
At Romney’s noon rally at the Dubuque Regional Airport NASCAR legend Richard Petty warmed up the crowd of 2,100 people and shared the stage with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who broke down the differences between Romney and Obama in his signature folksy fashion.
“Washington D.C. is an island surrounded by reality, see?” Grassley said. “The real world is right here… I hope you know that Gov. Romney, because he’s a business person, knows that the government consumes well. It doesn’t create well. That creation is out here.”
Grassley criticized the Obama administration for transferring power from individuals and states to the federal government by expanding his ability to appoint officials without Senate approval, his federal mandate forcing citizens to purchase regulated health care, his expansion of executive privilege in response to the “Fast & Furious” gun-running scandal and withholding the truth about the recent terrorist attack in Libya for political purposes.
“The last four years we’ve had a president that’s believed in two things: number one, cover up, and number two, usurp all the powers you can.”
Gov. Romney exited his campaign jet with all the pageantry of a president as the theme song from the Catholic-centric movie “Rudy” energized the cheering crowd. Perhaps the loudest applause came in response to Romney’s pledge of bipartisanship and compromise with congressional Democrats. The former Massachusetts governor slammed Obama for continuing to divide the country while parroting the same post-partisan posture he promised in 2008.
“You know how long it’s been since he’s spoken with either the Republican leader of the Senate or the Republican leader in the House? It’s been since July!” Romney said. “I don’t call that working across the aisle. He made a lot of promises, but those promises he couldn’t keep.”
He’s ignored [Congress]. He’s attacked them. Can you imagine four more years of that going on?” Romney said. “I will do what has to be done. I will meet regularly with Democrat leaders and Republican leaders… I won’t just represent one party, I will represent one nation.”
Romney’s latest Iowa television ad features Obama’s remarks at a Friday rally in Ohio, where he told his faithful supporters that “voting is the best revenge” against Romney.
“He’s asking his supporters to vote for revenge! I’m asking you to vote for love of country,” Romney said to chants of “USA! USA USA!”
Romney also chided Obama for his rhetoric steeped in class warfare and his disdain for successful Americans—while he goes through the motions of reaching out to business leaders (Obama has not met with his hand-picked jobs council in more than nine months).
“The people in Iowa, you’ve got clear eyes—you’ve seen a lot of politicians … make a lot of promises, you know what’s [the] truth and what’s not,” Romney said in closing his 20-minute stump speech, riffing off the slogan from the popular television show Friday Night Lights. “You’ve got clear hearts…, because with the vote of the people of Iowa, we can’t lose.”
Romney’s message appealed to Fennimore, Wis.-based physician Eulogio Aguilar and his wife, Lota, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the 1970s. Like many Republicans, the Aguilars decided to pass up the opportunity to vote early because they enjoy the experience of casting their ballot on Election Day. “I want to make sure my vote counts,” said Lota Aguilar, who kissed Ann Romney on the cheek during the rally.
Meanwhile, a crowd of 5,000 people (Obama’s campaign distributed about 8,000 tickets) gathered in Dubuque’s downtown Washington Park Saturday evening to hear Obama’s tired talking point that Romney represented little more than a clone of former president George W. Bush. Obama mocked Romney as a “very talented salesman” who is marketing old ideas under Obama’s supposed mantle of change.
National reporters noticed that Obama appeared weary as his own sales pitch fell flat with some of his most ardent supporters. “Obama was visibly more subdued by his third stop of the day … as he ran through his stump speech — but without the usual vigor or engagement of the crowd,” according to Politico.
Hollywood actress Kate Walsh testified that her family benefited from the federal welfare state and that only Obama cares about poor Americans. Crooner John Mellencamp also used his seven-song, half-hour set to hype Obama while bashing the rich. Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol, an Obama ally, said that job growth and infrastructure development in Dubuque rests on increasing federal spending levels.
“To sustain our momentum, we must have a partner in the White House,” said Buol, who called Dubuque a city where “deference for the highest office in the land still matters.”
The president praised the “free enterprise system,” conceding that he doesn’t want government “doing everything.” But the community organizer-in-chief constantly turned to centralizing power and spending with the federal government in Washington, D.C. as a cure-all the nation’s ailments.
President Obama dismissed criticism of his proven partisanship by blaming the opposing party and the vague “status quo” and “special interests” in Washington, as if those challenges did not exist for presidents such as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, who all—unlike Obama—passed major legislation with bipartisan support.
Brian Decker, the student body president at Beckman High School in Dyersville, joined a few of his classmates at the Romney rally and considered attending Obama’s event for history’s sake. The 17-year-old cannot vote yet, but he’s urging his 18-year-old classmates to punish Obama’s “childish” campaigning.
“The way he’s running for reelection is just like a fifth grade student council candidate,” Decker said. “He’s just pointing fingers at everyone else.”
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