SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Connecting with an audience crucial to his presidential hopes, a relaxed Mitt Romney spoke to GOP state chairmen here at a luncheon Friday that left many party officials more encouraged that he could credibly go up against President Obama in November.
Building on a strong introduction from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party's nominee four years ago, Mr. Romney managed to speak respectfully of the Democratic president, saying he has met and liked Mr. Obama the man. But on issues ranging from the economy and energy to free trade and America's place in the world, Mr. Romney said the president had been a disappointment as the nation's CEO the past four years.
Some of the elected GOP officials said later it wasn't so much the words – some were funny, few were memorable – that Mr. McCain and Mr Romney used, so much as the confident way they spoke them.
The former Massachusetts governor, who has all but wrapped up the GOP nomination, quipped that Mr. Obama's idea of promoting domestic energy was to approve expensive things above ground but not below, where the truly abundant and cheap energy sources reside.
"I'll build the [Keystone] pipeline myself if I have to," he said with a determined-looking smile, referring to a massive Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that Mr. Obama had refused to put on hold in the face of strong environmentalist concerns.
Mr. McCain, whose own performance on the stump in 2008 often lacked verve and passion in making the case for his candidacy, this time won repeated rounds of applause and a few standing ovations during his presentation of Mr. Romney to 40 state party chairmen and another 40 Republican National Committee officials.
When it came Mr. Romney's turn, he proceeded to talk directly to his listeners. Sometimes criticized privately as "wooden" on the stump, Mr. Romney generated what appeared to be real emotion from the audience that he had failed to elicit during his failed 2008 bid and for much of the current political cycle as he struggled to clinch the nomination.
Repeating his often-told stump story about witnessing passengers at a Boston airport spontaneously salute the casket of a U.S. serviceman killed in the Middle East arriving home, Mr. Romney brought tears to the eyes of many listeners.
At one point, Mr. Romney named each of his nomination rivals in thanking them for making the contest useful to GOP primary and caucus voters. Nods of approval spread through the audience at the Fairmont hotel here.
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