By Reid Cherlin, GQ
NAPLES, Fla.--When I arrived at the Romney event site, a plaza in the heart of Naples's faux-old-timey shopping district, the streets were so mobbed that I couldn't get close. Leisure-loving sixtysomethings clogged the palm-lined sidewalks and roadway nearly as far as the Sperry Top-Sider store, chatting in groups behind dark sunglasses, white teeth flashing. All around me, man-sandals and linen shorts, jewel-tone capri pants, visors, corporate-logo polo shirts, the bronzed calfs of sturdy legs that never wear pants anymore. Laughter, hearty handshakes, and the giddy feeling of moneyed liberation: we shot 18 holes this morning and now we're checking out our main man -- why not?
Worried I'd miss the event entirely, I cut around the block, snuck in through an alley, and ended up in an empty corner between the stage, the crowd, and the packed dining terrace of Yabba Island Grill, a spiked-lemonade-and-chicken-Caesar type of establishment fronting the square. Things were getting downright festive: attendance was swelling and the Rascall Flatts cover of "Life is a Highway" was blasting. I glanced down at my phone, and when I looked back up, the restaurantgoers -- not a one under 50 -- had shoved aside the metal barriers meant to keep them corralled on the patio. They began streaming into the backstage area with youthful glee. It was a little bit of Woodstock right here in Naples, median age 64 at last count.
Tom Sansbury, a tall, white-haired gentleman in a floral-print Hawaiian shirt, white shorts, and black loafers sipped a glass of chardonnay as he waited for Romney to show. He smiled in satisfaction. "Made up my mind, and I'm a Romney fan, yes," he said. "In fact, I've already voted. So has she," he said, jerking his thumb sideways. "That's my other half right there in the pink hat." Sansbury, 69, is a real estate developer here in Naples, and from the looks of things, he can afford to take it easy these days.
"My son's in a very similar business [to Bain Capital]," he told me. "Those guys know the economy; they know how to get things done and manage dollars and things of that sort. I think the economy's our number one problem and I think Mitt's the only one in the group that has any experience in the area of high finance -- which is what government is."
Many of us in the media have been fixated on the idea that no one truly loves Romney -- that no one can identify with him, and that his supporters chose him only as the least-bad alternative. But that's not right. Romney does have a base -- a passionate, joyful, motivated base -- and this morning they were all around me. Like Romney, they are polite and amicable. Like Romney, they show flashes of irritation with lesser people. Like Romney, they're what he might call "unemployed" -- the rising generation of seniors, nouveau retirees or people like Sansbury in the closing years of profitable careers, sitting on savings that survived or thrived during the recession and enjoying the finer things in life. Finally they have a candidate who speaks not just to them, but for them.
Which is not to take a position on whether they're numerous enough to propel him to the presidency -- or even to say that they're uniformly happy with their guy. "I'm for Romney if he grows a set of balls," Jim Lyle shouted to me over the din of the pre-program. He wore his steel-grey hair in a spiky Guy Fieri cut, his black Under Armour t-shirt stretched tight over a WWE wrestler's frame. He said he wished Romney would "take the bull by the horns and say 'don't bust my ass about the money I've made.' I mean, I've made money." (He must have: he retired at age 43 and moved here from New York.) He gestured across the crowd. "We've all had opportunity...We need to understand something: if we continue to give away and give away and give away, nobody's gonna want to go to work. You know? You talk to these college kids, and these kids don't know if Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle or Barack Obama's president..." He trailed off, momentarily distracted by the event's emcee. "That's our mayor -- that's John! He goes to church with us."
Lyle struggled a bit to sum up the good he sees in Romney. Balls or no, he appreciates that Romney gives so generously to charity, on top of the taxes he pays. He stressed to me twice that Obama's race and other-ness don't have anything to do with his opposition. "You know, we've been talking, but I have not ditched Obama once. I don't want to bring the equation in about being racist or being anything. I just don't like his policies." He told me how much he loves America. "I think this guy's the answer," he said.
His wife, standing a bit closer to the stage, whipped around. She didn't have any trouble summoning the simple credo of the Romney base. "He's got the most money," she said, smiling. "And he can beat Obama."
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Photo: Reid Cherlin