ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla.—Mitt Romney made his first campaign stop in two days without his new running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, by his side. And the presumptive Republican nominee promptly wandered into political territory Newt Gingrich would have approved of: Mars.
Taking the stage at an outdoor rally at a local college here, Romney launched into a riff about the state of the nation, including a shout out to the recent landing on Mars.
"I've got a promise to you guys: There are better days ahead when we get a better leader in Washington," Romney said. But, he added, America is "still the greatest nation on earth."
"I know that people around the world who are always critical of America … say our greatest days are in the past. Baloney," Romney declared. "We just won more Olympic medals than any other nation on earth. We also just landed on Mars and took a good look at what's going on there."
Citing China's efforts to land on the moon, Romney said, "I hope they stop in and take a good look at our flag that was put there 43 years ago."
Romney's mention of space travel wasn't so surprising, given that the location of the first stop of his daylong trip to Florida wasn't far from the Kennedy Space Center and the state's so-called "space coast."
But it was an unusual beginning for Romney, who rarely breaks from his usual stump speech. Coming off an 18-hour day Sunday that took him and Ryan through North Carolina and Wisconsin, the presumptive GOP nominee had noticeably less energy on stage Monday. The crowd was also more laid back, compared to rallies on Saturday and Sunday where cheers from the audience frequently drowned out the candidate.
Yet the more relaxed audience could have also been because of security snafus. The Secret Service and local police had just two magnetometers here to check the crowd, prompting a line of hundreds of people to snake down several blocks from the event. By the time Romney arrived on stage, just 1,300 had made it inside, leaving thousands of people to watch the event outside the barriers—something Romney noted from the stage.
"I understand there are even more people outside those barricades than inside here," Romney said, sounding a bit miffed. "So to the people way out there, thank you for coming today. Looks like we just didn't have enough of those mags to get everybody in today."
Echoing remarks he made during rallies over the last 48 hours, Romney talked up Ryan as a lawmaker who has sought to "make things better for the American people." Addressing a crowd that included several hundred seniors, Romney seemed to acknowledge Democratic criticism over Ryan's push to reform entitlement programs—casting his potential VP as someone who is trying to find solutions.
"He's come up with ideas that are very different from the president's. The president's idea for instance for Medicare was to cut it by $700 billion," Romney said. "That's not the right answer. We want to make sure we preserve and protect Medicare."
Romney took aim at his Democratic rival, accusing President Barack Obama of running a dishonest campaign.
"With a record which has been as disappointing as the record that he's demonstrated over the past four years, the president's campaign has resorted to a very unusual tactic. It's smear. It's dirt. It's distortion. It's deception. It's dishonesty," Romney said. "It diminishes the office of the presidency itself."