On the final stop of his North Carolina tour Sunday, a buoyant Mitt Romney bounded from his bus in the middle of a High Point street.
Followed by his new running mate, he walked along waving to supporters who lined the curb, even obliging some with high-fives.
It was hard to tell who was more enthusiastic, the candidate or the crowd.
They all appeared energized by the addition of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to the Republican ticket.
“I liked Romney. When he picked Ryan, I really liked him,” Charlottean John Nowak said outside one Romney appearance.
A day after naming Ryan, the Republican presidential hopeful and his running mate spoke to overflow crowds of thousands in Mooresville and High Point.
“This election is going to be a choice of two very different paths,” Romney said, defining the choice as one between bigger, “more intrusive” government and smaller government that ensures private freedoms and opportunity.
Both candidates invoked the state’s 9.4 percent unemployment rate, one of the nation’s highest. And like Romney, Ryan cast the election as a “clear choice of two futures.”
“Are we going to accept the status quo a path of debt, a path of doubt and decline?” he told supporters who crowded a High Point furniture factory. “We can turn this country around.”
Democrats said the choice of Ryan underlines the choice facing voters.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has put forward controversial plans that overhaul the federal budget and Medicare by cutting spending and remaking the health plan for retirees with a privatized option.
“Mitt Romney’s true colors are definitely shining through,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte said in a statement Sunday. “By selecting Paul Ryan he has truly given in to the radical right agenda of no government for any purpose. That agenda is one that only believes in making the richest people richer.”
Obama adviser David Axelrod, meanwhile, has derided what Republicans are calling “America’s Comeback Team” as the “Go Back Team.”
N.C. is a battleground
That Romney traveled to the Tar Heel State a day after naming Ryan to the GOP ticket underscored the state’s status as a 2012 battleground. Democrat Barack Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008 and both sides have been fighting to win it this year.
“If we win North Carolina, we will win the White House,” Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, told the overflow crowd in Mooresville Sunday.
As if to underline the stakes, Vice President Joe Biden will visit Durham Monday and Romney returns to Charlotte for a Wednesday fundraiser. The National Journal reported that since May 1, both the Obama and Romney campaigns and their allies have spent around $30 million on TV ads in North Carolina.
In Mooresville, Romney stood in front of a stock car bearing his name at the NASCAR Technical Institute. He spoke to a roomful of 1,700 people with thousands more listening outside. So boisterous was the crowd – frequently breaking into chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” – that GOP gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory said, “I feel like I’m in Woodstock.”
The GOP candidates offered up more red meat than specifics. Romney did outline a five-point plan to create jobs that includes reducing regulation, improving education and cutting the federal deficit.
He pledged to “restore America” by “bringing back the values and principals of America.” He and Ryan took turns praising each other.
“I selected this man to be running mate because I want to change Washington,” Romney said. “I don’t want to be like Europe. I want to be like America.”
While touting Romney as a decisive leader, Ryan took shots at Obama.
“Now he’s turned ‘hope and change’ into ‘attack and blame,’ ” he said. “And we’re not going to fall for that.”
The rallies in Mooresville and High Point – and a homecoming event for Ryan in Wisconsin later Sunday – are probably the final times the Republican ticket will appear together on the campaign trail.
Campaign spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters traveling with the campaign that Ryan will campaign in Iowa as Romney continues the bus tour in Florida, both swing states.
Excitement in the crowd
Though critics have questioned Romney’s ability to gin up enthusiasm in his party, there seemed to be no lack of it Sunday. It was fueled not only by the newly minted ticket but by the man it’s trying to replace.
“What it shows is the discontent of the American people,” said Gary Chapman, a 65-year-old Yadkin County resident who traveled to Mooresville.
“I haven’t had this much hope in a long time,” Bill Wallin of Salisbury said as he waited to hear the candidates in Mooresville.
Romney supporters praised Ryan’s selection as a sign the team is willing to make tough decisions.
“He (Ryan) says what he’s going to do,” said Nancy Ward, 76, a retiree on Medicare. “He’s the only one who’s had the guts to produce a budget.”
In High Point, Melanie Harris called Ryan’s selection “bold (but) a little risky.”
“It shows we’re not going to avoid the hard things,” said the Greensboro psychologist. “We’re not going to play politics as usual. We have a crisis and we’re going to fix it.”
Sebastian Tilson, a 21-year-old student from Thomasville, said he likes Ryan’s ideas for Medicare and other entitlement programs, especially given forecasts that such programs could eventually run out of money.
“We can’t expect to rely on Social Security and Medicare like it is now,” he said.
“So when you get someone brave enough to propose specific solutions, you should vote for them, or at least have an intelligent conversation about those solutions.”