By Craig Gilbert, Mike Johnson and Don Behm, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
APPLETON, Wis. — Despite staking rival Rick Santorum to a six-day head start in Wisconsin, Mitt Romney arrived here Friday with a lead in the polls, the endorsement of influential homegrown conservative Paul Ryan, and the aura of an all-but certain nominee.
In an afternoon speech at Lawrence University, Romney ignored the other Republicans in the race and took aim at President Barack Obama, saying “America hasn’t been working” and his economic strategy has been a bust.
Later he made the familiar candidate’s pilgrimage to the fish fry at American Serb Memorial Hall.
Santorum spent his fifth day on the Wisconsin campaign trail, deriding Romney as disconnected from working people, saying Republicans won’t win by nominating someone who jokes about firing people. Romney joked on a “tele-town hall” with Wisconsin voters Wednesday about the time more than 50 years ago that his father, head of American Motors, moved car production from Michigan to Wisconsin.
But for as much time as he has invested, Santorum is battling a big money deficit here and a sense that the party is coalescing behind Romney.
“I believe it’s getting to the point where it’s going to become counter-productive if the primary drags on. It’s going to get much tougher to defeat Barack Obama in the fall,” said Ryan, the House budget chair from Janesville, Wis., who endorsed Romney and campaigned with him Friday.
According to the Associated Press, a new Wisconsin poll by NBC News/Marist showed Romney trailing Obama 35 percent to 52 percent in a general election match-up.
But, the AP reported, it was also the latest of four polls released this week that showed Romney leading Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, among Wisconsin GOP Primary voters by anywhere from 5 to 10 points.
Speaking at Lawrence University, Romney said: “President Barack Obama thinks he’s doing a good job. I’m not kidding. He actually thinks he’s doing a great job. An historically great job. According to the president, only Lincoln and FDR and Lyndon Johnson have accomplished more.”
“And no, he didn’t say that on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” Romney said.
In a 25-minute speech, the former Massachusetts governor accused Obama of seeing “free enterprise as the villain and not the solution.”
“Under Barack Obama, America hasn’t been working,” he said. “The ironic tragedy is that the community organizer who wanted to help those hurt by a plant closing became the president on whose watch more jobs were lost than any time since the Great Depression.”
On collective bargaining, a hot-button issue in Wisconsin, Romney said that workers should have the right to form unions, but unions should not be forced upon them. He added, “Unions should not have the power to take money out of their members’ paychecks to buy the support of politicians favored by the union bosses.”
Ryan Grunwald, of Oshkosh, Wis., was at the speech with his father. Earlier in the day, both had attended a campaign stop in Oshkosh by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Grunwald on Thursday also attended a Ron Paul appearance in Madison, Wis.
“I noticed the focus (of Romney) wasn’t on his competitors, it was all on President Barack Obama, kind of a sign that he’s aware he’s the front-runner,” Grunwald said. “He’s probably going to win Wisconsin and doesn’t have to worry about the other guys.”
Ryan’s endorsement was the first by any GOP member of Congress from Wisconsin, and comes from a major national voice on the right. Romney has embraced Ryan’s hotly debated House budget, which passed that chamber with no Democratic votes Thursday. The two have produced similar plans to overhaul Medicare. Ryan is also touted as a serious vice presidential prospect, though he told Fox News Friday that he and Romney “have never discussed that at all.”
The NBC/Marist survey also reinforced the perception that the presidential primary is taking a back seat to Wisconsin’s ongoing political drama, the recall fight over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, which generated more headlines Friday with the announced candidacy of Democrat Tom Barrett. The survey found that 51 percent of people planning to vote in the GOP presidential primary were following the recall fight more closely, while 37 percent were following the primary more closely.
At Milwaukee’s Serb Hall Friday evening, Romney and Ryan shook hands and signed autographs for supporters and campaign volunteers.
In introducing Romney, Ryan noted that he did not endorse a candidate in 2008. This time it was necessary, however, to preserve the American “opportunity society,” he said.
“Let’s get back to growing the economy,” Ryan said. He described Romney as having “the courage to do what’s right.”
After limited comments, Romney stood with volunteers for photos. Sandy Harsh of Wales, Wis., pushed close to the front of the line. She said she had picked Romney because he does not have extreme political views, and is the most likely to oust Obama.
As Romney slowly exited the dining room and adjacent bar, he held babies and shook more hands.
But an unescorted toddler racing through the crowded lane caught his attention. Romney bent down to stop the frightened child. After making sure that a security officer had the girl under control, Romney looked down the line and called: “Mom?!”
Three-year-old Bella Sciortino of Milwaukee was returned safely to her mother, Nicole.
And Romney returned to shaking hands.