In Mississippi, he declared his growing love for “cheesy grits,” and the undeniable utility of the contraction “y'all.” In Michigan, he famously observed that the trees were “the right height.” And in state after state on his nearly two year quest for the White House, Mitt Romney told audience after audience how lucky they were “to live in a place like this.”
In a late October rally at Colorado’s stunning Red Rocks amphitheater, Romney reflected aloud on the beauty of the scene.
“This is a magnificent place for a guy born in Detroit to come here and look at these extraordinary mountains -- you look at the handiwork of our creator, and it’s just, it’s just overwhelming,” Romney said.
Tonight, Romney’s journey will end -- in one way or another. And with it will also end the education of a candidate, of his staff and of a press corps about a theme Romney so often strikes on the campaign trail: the greatness of America.
“When I was a boy, my parents took me around to the national parks, including the Grand Canyon, to see the beauty of America,” Romney told a crowd of supporters in Arizona in February. “I fell in love with the land. Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with the people.”
Romney’s closing argument, too, is wrapped and layered in patriotism, including an appeal to supporters to vote today “for love of country.”
And while reporters may not have joined Romney’s warbling rendition of “America the Beautiful” on a January night in Florida, many of us, too, are having a similarly revealing experience as we crisscross America.
In my own 16 months of following the Romney campaign, I’ve filed stories from 36 states; a stage in Puerto Rico overlooking the Caribbean Sea; and from three foreign countries. I’ve swam in the Pacific Ocean near La Jolla, skied in the mountains of Utah, and floated on a pontoon boat in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnepesaukee.
Some memories stay with you more than others.
On his final night in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Romney attended a political rally disguised as a rave. For three hours, politicians took the stage and chanted, shouted, and exhorted an audience of sign-waving supporters.
To do what? I have no idea. Almost every word of it was in Spanish, and the Romney press corps, on a stage that looked out over the scene and the sea, sat mostly bemused until Romney took the stage.
"Politics in Puerto Rico is spoken with energy and passion,” Romney said. “Thank you."
Ann Romney might have said it better: "You show us how to party," she laughed into the microphone.
On the final stop of his “Every Town Counts” bus tour in Holland, Mich., Romney rallied a crowd of supporters along the shores of Lake Michigan, diverting into tangents often to sing the praises of his home state as the sun set into the waves. As he finished his remarks he took his wife Ann by the hand and the two walked down to touch the lake.
After three days on busses, in filing centers and often cheap hotels, I kicked off my shoes and let my toes feel the sand as I shot video of the couple. At the water’s edge I rolled up my jeans and waded in to my ankles.
In New Hampshire on the Fourth of July, the sense of patriotism was inescapable as Romney, tailed by classic cars, and flanked by family members, walked down Main Street in Wolfeboro, shaking hands and wiping away sweat as he greeted cheering crowds.
I was the pool reporter for the television networks on that day, and as the parade neared its conclusion, I leapt down from the flatbed truck that had hauled our crew through town in time to see Romney approach a lemonade stand and guzzle a glass. Somehow standing feet apart, all I could think to ask him in that moment was how he enjoyed the drink?
“Lemon. Wet. Good.” Romney grunted back before plunging into the flag-waving crowd to shake more hands.
On Twitter, the moment became something of a running joke, but on the street that day it was a classic snapshot of a pure campaign moment -- a man who rarely seems to truly enjoy the act of campaigning, invigorated by the heat of the day, and the passion of those lining the streets, if not directed entirely towards him, than at least towards the country that Romney genuinely loves.
One reporter on the Romney press corps called this experience “the most patriotic year of our lives.” We stand for the Pledge of Allegiance three or four times daily, and have listened to some of the most moving renditions of the Star Spangled Banner that I have ever heard, including one sung by a girl in Ohio who couldn’t have been older than 10 that has stuck with me for months.
(However, I won’t speak of Meatloaf’s troubling rendition of God Bless America.)
On Monday, Romney himself made the call to extend his tour of America by one more day, adding two last minute stops in battleground states -- rather than sitting at home in Boston to await election results.
Tuesday morning, Romney called into a radio station in Virginia to explain his decision.
“I can’t imagine an election being won or lost by, let’s say, a few hundred votes and you spent your day sitting around,” Romney said. “You’d say to yourself: Holy cow, why didn’t I keep working? So I’m going to make sure I never have to look back with anything other than the greatest degree of satisfaction in this whole campaign.”
And why not fly back out into the heart of the country again to seek that satisfaction?
This is America, the greatest country on earth.
Garrett Haake has been the embed reporter covering Romney's campaign over the past year and half for NBC News.