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When debt is the message, Romney employs a powerful visual aid

Mary Altaffer / AP

Mitt Romney's new sidekick is a giant electronic board that counts the national debt. On Thursday, Romney speaks to reporters after a campaign stop at the River City Brewing Company.


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It has appeared behind Romney on stage more often than several of his sons, standing stiff and silent, but saying volumes about the candidate's stark vision of an economy led for another four years by President Barack Obama.

It is Romney's enormous electronic debt clock, now concluding its first trip here to Florida.

"We try to make the venue and the backdrop underline the message the governor is talking about on the stump," explained Romney's advance director Will Ritter, who came up with the idea.

Depicting the national debt is tricky. With education, a blackboard would convey the message. For the military, American flags. But with the debt – a complicated, 16-digit figure that changes every fraction of a second – the point is tougher to convey visually.

So in August, Ritter and the Romney advance staff set to work designing the clock, which is modeled after a baseball scoreboard and employs a complicated algorithm written by a young advance staffer, Harvard grad John Palmer.

The algorithm, which keeps the clock synched to the official U.S. national debt projections online, is fed by unseen laptops, which in turn display the nation's debt in real-time, as well as the amount owed by each U.S. taxpayer: $139,014 at the start of Thursday's event.

Romney first rolled out the finished product – a foam-core frame over two 56-inch laptops – at a town hall in Dover, New Hampshire on August 25th, and referenced it repeatedly.

“It’s a frightening thing here as we watch these tens of thousands of dollars going by, second by second, hundreds of thousands of dollars going by the minute,” Romney said, pointing to the clock.

"The first time we tried it we just used Duct tape and just kind of stuck it up there and we noticed in the gym that it was slipping ever so slightly and I was just praying he wouldn't touch it," Ritter said of the clock's debut.

The audience loved the visual aid.

Per the Washington Post's Phil Rucker: "When a Dover man rose to ask a question, he prefaced it with a comment. ‘Thanks for bringing the clock,’ he said. ‘I’m impressed.’”

Romney's Boston staff noticed that the clock, which costs about $1,000 per event to transport, set up and run, seems to have an effect on the audience when it’s on stage: it keeps them focused on the economy, which Romney calls his "wheelhouse."

"I've noticed that when we take questions it’s such kind of a cool prop, that people like to reference it, and we tend to get more economic-based questions," Ritter said.

The candidate, too, seems more focused with the presence of his silent partner.

“I'm going to cut programs out of the federal government," Romney declared at an event in Kalamazoo, Michigan in February, clock in tow.

In Jacksonville, Fla. on Thursday, rain forced members of Romney's audience up on the stage, blocking the sign for most of the event, but some folks still noticed.

"It's huge, and it’s sad. I have children and I'm going to have grandchildren," Phyllis Shackleford of Atlanta said of the number displayed on the clock, whose debt-per-taxpayer ticked up $3.00 during the event. "And I don't want them to be saddled with that debt."