VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.—Mitt Romney's crowds had been growing—12,000 in Defiance, Ohio, 15,000 in Land O'Lakes, Fla., 10,000 in Denver, Colo. His audiences had become more adoring, cheering Romney beyond his one-liners attacking President Barack Obama.
Speaking to voters in tiny Celina, Ohio, last Sunday, Romney paused on stage as the audience yelled and screamed his name, basking in the glow of their support. Later, as Romney spoke to voters on a football field, a young man yelped for joy when the GOP nominee paused to shake his hand.
"This is the greatest day of my life!" the man exclaimed—a claim rarely heard at Romney events.
Romney had also seemed to find his voice on the stump, delivering confident speeches sprinkled with tender stories of people he'd met on the campaign trail. At a rally in Worthington, Ohio, last week, Romney vowed to bring "big change" to Washington. "This about to get real good," he said.
But just as it was getting "good" for Romney, the candidate was forced off the road much of Monday and Tuesday amid the devastation of superstorm Sandy.
In the following days, Romney's crowds were noticeably smaller: 2,000 in Tampa, Fla., 4,200 in Jacksonville, Fla., 2,800 in Roanoke, Va., and 2,000 at a rally outside Richmond, Va., according to the campaign's own estimates.
Romney aides attributed the lower turnout to the lasting impact of Sandy as well as the candidate's last-minute scheduling changes. Romney's Virginia stops on Thursday, for instance, were held during the week and had been rescheduled at the last minute, after having been postponed on Sunday ahead of Sandy.
Still, with less than a week to go before Election Day, Romney's smaller crowds were striking. And one Romney aide privately acknowledged concerns within the campaign that Sandy, pushing the election out of the news cycle, may have cost Romney some of the momentum he claimed heading into the final days of the campaign.
As the storm bore down on the East Coast on Monday, Romney and his top aides fiercely debated whether he should maintain or cancel the planned schedule, and whether he should travel to the areas affected by the storm later in the week. In the end, the candidate scrapped almost two days of events and rechristened a planned rally outside Dayton, Ohio, a "storm relief event."
Publicly, the campaign has insisted it's not focused on the impact of Sandy on Romney's schedule and message. Nor, it says, is it affected by Obama's appearance with one of Romney's top surrogates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who praised the president's response to the storm.
"We try not to look at handicapping the campaign through the lens of the storm," Kevin Madden, a senior Romney adviser, told reporters.The campaign, he said, is focused on "getting our message out to voters" and "reminding folks that they've got a big choice on Election Day."
But it appeared to be taking no chances. A week after Romney delivered what aides described as a "closing argument" speech in Ames, Iowa, the candidate will deliver another major speech on Friday in Wisconsin laying out "the big choice between change and the status quo," a Romney aide, speaking on background, told Yahoo News.
Even the candidate seemed to be concerned about the optics of his campaign. On Thursday night, Romney attracted his largest crowd of the day, speaking to 6,000 people at an outdoor amphitheater in Virginia Beach. While the venue wasn't full—hundreds of seats were empty near the back—it was easily one of Romney's most enthusiastic crowds, and the candidate went out of his way to note that the rally had been last minute—hinting that he knew there had been chatter about his small events.
"I guess we just gave you notice yesterday that we were going to be here tonight," Romney said. "The fact that you turned out in such a response as this is overwhelming. It's a great sign."