FAIRFAX, Va.—If you arrived two hours early for Mitt Romney’s final Virginia campaign event on Monday afternoon then you likely arrived several hours too late to get inside the Patriot Center at George Mason University.
While an estimated 10,000 people cheered for the Republican presidential nominee inside the Fairfax, Va., arena, an overflow crowd of several thousand were left outside when the fire marshal shut the doors.
“I got here at 7:30 this morning, and people started lining up before 8,” a security guard blocking an arena entrance explained to a group of frustrated Romney supporters stuck on the outside looking in.
The event didn’t start until after three o’clock in the afternoon, meaning some supporters arrived seven hours before the rally. Traffic clogged all the roads leading to the arena. Parking lots quickly filled up, forcing some supporters to park more than two miles away. Romney supporters, including a large number of women with young children, took long treks through neighborhoods and the university campus carrying Romney signs and American flags.
But even though that walk was in vain for thousands, few of them headed back to their cars. Instead they lingered in the grass surrounding the arena, huddling in groups under trees that still held a few fall leaves. Campaign staffers brought out temporary loud speakers.
Mark Maurer, 59, of Lorton, Va., was among those who stayed despite not getting inside for the rally. Wearing a T-shirt that read, “My faith and my politics cannot be separated,” Maurer said he endured the crowd, the traffic, and the cold because he is worried about the future facing his seven grandchildren.
Maurer owns a safe and lock business, but he hasn’t been able to afford to hire new employees for the last three years.
“Romney is going to take this thing,” he predicted looking around at the overflow crowd in a part of Northern Virginia that went heavily for Barack Obama in 2008. “I don’t think by a lot, but he will win.”
When asked what he thinks will be the difference, Maurer, a former youth minister, answered, “The Christian vote.” He said people in his church are behind Gov. Romney after holding an initial skepticism about his Mormon faith.
As Maurer talked, the rally inside began.
“This is really something special,” Romney said. “I am looking around to see if we have the Beatles here or something to have brought you, but it looks like you came just for the campaign.”
Wearing a rugby shirt with an American flag design, George Hayes, 53, listened to Romney’s voice blare over the outside speakers. He said he attends a nearby nondenominational evangelical megachurch and admitted that Romney wasn’t his first choice for the GOP nomination. He preferred Rep. Michele Bachmann, who often speaks openly about her faith.
But Hayes said he began to warm to Romney during his debates with President Obama.
“He would not back down from anything,” Hayes said of Romney.
Hayes listed his values as a Christian as protecting the life of an unborn child, traditional marriage, and religious liberty. He believes Romney is the candidate who will preserve those values.
“And they are under attack,” he added.
Inside the arena the crowd shouted “one more day.” The crowd outside joined the cheer.
“We are not just voting. We are praying for this,” said Bonnie Speakman.
Speakman said she is concerned about the way the Obama administration handled the consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya. She is disappointed that the media is not focusing more on the attack, and she is worried that the complete story concerning the security precautions the Obama administration did and didn’t take won’t come out until after the election.
“I feel like we left them behind,” she said of the four Americans killed in Libya.
Inside the arena Romney criticized Obama for his healthcare plan, a national deficit that has doubled, and for failing on his promise to cut the nation’s unemployment rate to 5.6 percent.
“He cared more about the liberal agenda … than he did the economy,” Romney said. “The president thinks more government is the answer. It’s not. More good jobs. That’s the answer.”
Julie Jennings, 46, has been so caught up in the campaign that she took four of her five children, ages 4 to 13, to Romney’s Fairfax rally. She thought maybe it would be educational for her children to see a potential future president. They didn’t get inside to get a glimpse of Romney, but they stayed to hear his speech over the loudspeakers.
Jennings will volunteer at a polling place on Election Day. Her political engagement started after she became annoyed by the Democrats’ accusation that Republicans are fighting a war on women.
“I just didn’t get that,” Jennings said. “I felt like, I was a woman, and I didn’t see a war. I resented being lumped in that group. I kept saying, ‘I can’t be the only women in the country that feels that way.’”
Jennings searched online and joined a “Women for Romney” group on Facebook. The group has spent the fall encouraging one another and sharing statistics, studies, and articles that could be used to counter the argument that Republicans are against women.
“The best thing I think they can do for women is to create jobs,” she said. “I would like to think we are intelligent enough to make our own decisions regarding things like contraceptives. I’m a big enough girl. Liberal women don’t have the right to decide what all the women issues are.”
Even though the group hasn’t met in person, they’ve made plans to get together in Washington for the inauguration if Romney wins.
As the late afternoon sun set on this second day after the end of Daylight Saving Time, the temperature began to drop. Babies bundled in blankets cried. The event inside ended and the song “My Girl” blasted over the loudspeakers. The lyrics, “When its cold outside …” got a laugh from those outside.
But as thousands poured out of the arena, the overflow crowd outside, estimated by the fire marshal to be 3,000 people strong, remained. They began to congregate below a microphone that had been set up atop one of the arena’s concrete porches.
Soon Romney and his wife, Ann, appeared before the microphone. Some in the overflow crowd hoisted their children onto their shoulders to get a better glimpse of the Republican nominee.
The Romneys seemed buoyed by the crowd. As a suburb of Washington, Fairfax seems to be safe territory for Obama. But this crowd may suggest otherwise. Indeed embedded among the throng are voting demographics that pollsters say Romney will need to pull out a victory.
Those include Christians like Maurer and Hayes who must be energized even if they didn’t get their first choice candidate. And they include women like Jennings who is defying the liberal argument that women are under attack by social conservatives.
“This is so heartwarming, even on a chilly day,” Ann Romney told the overflow crowd. “I think we might be neighbors soon.”
The White House on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is just across the Potomac River.