ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The defining moment of Mitt Romney's first Florida appearance after his consensus triumph in the first presidential debate was, perhaps, not something he said in his upbeat 25-minute speech, but the reaction of the crowd of 5,500, plus about 2,000 standing outside the barriers at St. Petersburg's Pier Park.
When Romney's campaign bus pulled into Pier Park at 6:50 p.m. Friday and the candidate got out, the crowd didn't just scream and cheer as is the norm for this kind of thing, but pressed in on him as he made his way to
the outdoor podium, like a group hug.
That sense was echoed by some of the people who attended the rally.
"He grabbed my hand three times," said an excited Audrey Rumsey of Spring Hill, who came with her parents, Walt and Mary Southard.
Rumsey and her parents had just heard Romney's predictable speech on what he was going to do for the economy, jobs, Medicare, the Armed Forces, education and small business to trump what alleged damage President Barack Obama has done, much the same rhetoric he gave earlier in the day at another rally, in another state.
Romney also got the predictable roars when he said, "I asked him why he spent two years fighting for 'Obamacare' and when we needed to address the economy and why he spent $90 billion on green energy jobs. Anyone here have one of those? I keep looking."
But what Rumsey and her family came away with was not so much the words but the fact that Romney was inches away.
"I now have real hope," Rumsey said. "We have been worried, but [the debate] Wednesday took away the worry. I am sure now he will win. He is like Ronald Reagan but quieter, like a more humble, quieter, Ronald Reagan. He has no smoke and mirrors. Wednesday was the turning point."
Melody Engle, a volunteer from Clearwater, said that if election day had been Oct. 4 rather than Nov. 6, Romney would have won.
"I went to the Republican National Convention and it was fine and good," Engle said. "But this is different. Now, he finally got to stand up and be judged and now people are seeing who he is and that he is a real guy."
Engle and Rumsey both said that Oct. 3, the day of the debate, will be a date remembered in history if Romney goes on to become president.
Romney, who is spending the weekend rallying in Orlando and Port St. Lucie, told the crowd in a confident tone that he will win the state of Florida on the way to capturing the White House.
He also got a roar from the crowd when he said he does not have the need to give speeches with a Teleprompter, a dig at Obama, whose famous show business supporter Bill Maher tweeted after the debate that the president could have used a Teleprompter.
"That was the turning point," Rumsey said.
"When you have Bill Maher slamming you, it's over."