SIDNEY, Ohio -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney received a warm reception on a cold evening at the Shelby County Fairgrounds Wednesday as he addressed a crowd estimated at more than 8,500 people, more than eight times the number expected to turn out.
Josh Romney, one of five sons, introduced his father, describing the former governor of Massachusetts as "my hero and the next president of the United States."
As the elder Romney took the stage, the sea of people rose into a breaking wave of cell phones and cameras to capture the momentous event, chanting "four more weeks, four more weeks!" Romney told the crowd he'd been watching President Barack Obama's rallies hearing the chants of "four more years, but said, "I've been looking at my calendar and I think 'four more weeks' is more appropriate."
Romney, who will face the incumbent Obama at the polls in just under four weeks, appealed to his largely rural and working-class audience with his focus on jobs, health care and the estate tax. He commented several times on the size of the crowd and thanked everyone for coming out.
"The median income in this country has dropped by $4,300 per family," Romney said of the past four years. "And with median income around 50 thousand bucks, that's a huge drop."
Romney said health care premiums are up $2,500, while Obama promised they would drop by that amount.
He pointed out the increase in gasoline prices: "double since he's been president, or more."
"These are tough times. The president's answer to this is to say he's going to save Big Bird," Romney said to a laugh from the crowd. "My view is it's better to have a president that's going to save the American family and help people across this country." The laughter turned to rousing cheers.
The candidate said the country "can't afford another four years like the last four years have been," adding that re-electing Obama would mean continued rising prices and falling incomes.
Romney brought up last week's presidential debate and said he and the president have interests in common but they differ in how they would resolve problems.
"We both care very deeply about helping the middle class of America and helping get people out of poverty and into the middle class," Romney said. "Our process for doing that couldn't be more different."
Romney said the president wanted to raise taxes. "I want to lower taxes on small business," Romney said.
The candidate said he wanted to eliminate the estate tax, which he said was an impediment in passing farms down within a family.
Romney also expressed his support for energy independence, including taking advantage of all of the nation's resources and technology from oil to natural gas to nuclear to wind energy. He said he wanted to double the number of licenses for drilling on federal land and open up drilling in Alaska.
Romney pointed out the cuts Obama has made to military funding.
"I will not cut the military," Romney said. "Our military must be second to none."
Romney also supported opening up trade to support American manufacturing, particularly in Latin America, and reducing federal spending to balance the federal budget.
Small businesses, Romney said, too often see the federal government as "the enemy," stating that he wants a government that "champions small business," and passes regulations that support rather than suppress a free market system. He said he also wants to get "Obamacare out of the way of creating jobs."
Romney said the president has failed in his leadership and has failed to bring Congress together.
He shared anecdotes of the people he has met along the campaign trail and how they have inspired him, including a war widow who held no hard feelings against the protesters at her husband's funeral.
After leaving the stage, Romney walked along the edge of the crowd, shaking hands and posing for pictures with his eager supporters. Even as he approached his motor coach, he turned and ran back to shake more hands before proceeding on his way.
Shelby County Sheriff John Lenhart said of the event that everything came together smoothly.
"I can't think of anything that fell through the cracks," he said. He complimented Sidney's police force and said there were no problems from anyone in the crowd.
Lenhart said the sheriff's office had about 15 personnel working the site, while the Sidney Police Department provided an additional 11 people. No mutual aid was called in for other county law enforcement agencies. The Sidney Fire Department provided fire and medical support, but there were no problems.
Chris Gibbs, chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, said the event was a "huge undertaking" but was an undeniable success.
"The Romney team was meticulous in organizing, and the ability to put on a production like this in such a short amount of time is fantastic," Gibbs said.
Attendance far surpassed the initial projection of about 1,000.
"I was initially concerned there were still folks outside when the program started," Gibbs said. The line stretched several deep the whole length of the fairgrounds and most of the way around the racetrack as the thousands patiently moved in.
"I believe everyone got to see (Gov. John) Kasich and certainly everyone got to see Romney," Gibbs said, adding that the last few hundred people in line were not fully screened through security and were instead directed to a site outside the fenced area enclosing those who had gone through screening.
Gibbs said he was able to spend some time with Romney before he took the stage, and found the candidate to be "very confident. He was truly impressive to me."
Gibbs also said Romney seemed "very appreciative of what Shelby County put together."
"The help and support from the city of Sidney, Mayor (Michael) Barhorst, the Sidney Police Department, the sheriff's department, the fairgrounds staff and (Sidney City Schools) Superintendent (John) Scheu was far beyond the call of duty," said Gibbs, who spearheaded the drive to bring the candidate to Shelby County.
"That shows what kind of community we have here," Gibbs said. "We put our shoulder to the wheel and we get things done."
Contact reporter Rachel Lloyd at rlloydsdnccg.com