It’s after dark on Monday and bitterly cold. As I merge my tiny Toyota rental car off Interstate 93 in Manchester, N.H., and inch down Elm Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, the first thing I see is the line. It stretches for blocks around the Verizon Wireless arena, a boxy concrete hockey rink.
It’s only 8 p.m., and the Romney rally won’t start for three hours, but a sea of men, women, and children is waiting patiently to get inside the building and through the Secret Service’s metal detectors. They’re clutching homemade posters, and the lucky ones have cups of coffee.
I park the car and join them, and I’m immediately struck by the energy and optimism of the parka-wearing masses. Their fingers are numb, but they’re not complaining. Middle-aged mothers are swaying to Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” which is playing on an outdoor speaker, and a handful of college-age males in Red Sox caps are leading an impromptu sing-along of “God Bless America.”
Finally, we all get inside, and past the man with the electronic wand looking for weapons. It’s open seating, and people rush down the steps. They run to the front rows of the arena, down by where the hockey players usually sit during games. For them, this isn’t just another political rally — it’s a chance to see the man who may be elected president the next day, plus Kid Rock.
Before then, however, there is time to kill. Romney is running late from a string of campaign appearances, and he’s not expected to be onstage until close to midnight, so people settle in for a few hours of classic rock and Romney cinema. They watch the four-sided scoreboard, which hangs above the center of the arena, as it broadcasts a video of Romney’s recent rally at Red Rocks, and another one about Ann Romney, which leads many people to stand up and cheer.
They keep dancing, too, this time in the steep aisles, as Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” plays over the loudspeakers. At 9:30 p.m., a burly man in flannel near the press pen stands up and tries to start the wave, but he is met with derision from many of his fellow attendees. He rethinks his plan and starts to chant, “One more day! One more day!” This time, he’s met with applause, and the rest of his section joins in. Soon, the entire lower deck of the arena seems to be chanting the same refrain.
By 10:00 p.m., things are starting to happen onstage. Granite State politicians, such as gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne, give brief speeches. Senator Kelly Ayotte, a freshman Republican who’s dressed in a sharp black-leather jacket, gives the final talk among this group, and the crowd warmly embraces her. She doesn’t even need to say much. “How many of you think this is the most important election?” she asks. The crowd roars as if she were Lynyrd Skynyrd and had just promised to play “Free Bird.”
As Ayotte walks off, a few roadies are behind me, setting up another stage across the arena for Kid Rock, Detroit’s most famous rap-rocker. A moment later, the lights go down, the arena begins to slightly shake as feet stomp, and people start to scream — at a Romney rally.
The reporters around me close their Apple laptops and walk toward the stage. It’s one of those times where it’s nearly impossible to type coherently, because of the noise, and at the end of a long, tiring campaign, a little rock-and-roll isn’t the worst thing.
As expected, Kid Rock is all swagger. He’s in a black T-shirt, dark sunglasses, and jeans. He shimmies and struts as he plays his hits, such as “All Summer Long,” which uses the riff from “Sweet Home Alabama” as a backdrop to Rock’s lyrics about “smoking funny things” and “not thinking ’bout tomorrow.”
The thousands here aren’t put off by Rock’s cocky, front-man persona; they love his confidence and his message, which mixes unabashed patriotism with the joy of “sippin’ whisky out da bottle.” He may not be a celebrity on the same level as Bruce Springsteen, who spent Monday with the president, but he does have a Boss-like appeal. He’s a younger, often R-rated working-class hero.
At the end of his set, Rock jumps on top of a beat-up piano, which is decorated with bumper stickers, including a large one reading “BADASS.” His backing band starts to jam the opening chords of “Born Free,” a chugging piece from his canon. Rock waves his arms in the arm as dry ice and laser beams surround him. As he leans back and belts into the microphone, his feet straddling the piano top, thousands hold up their cell phones as makeshift lighters.
Throughout the campaign, Romney has used “Born Free” at rallies as his walkout song. Whenever he shuffles from the green room to the stage, you hear Rock’s gravelly voice describing a man “chasing dreams and racing Father Time.” Romney’s traveling press corps jokes that they now cringe when the song comes on because they’ve heard it so often. But the crowd in Manchester isn’t part of Romney’s traveling press, and they are happy to hear it live.