WAUKESHA, Wisconsin — Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan got rock-star treatment this weekend as their newly minted ticket drew the largest crowds of the Republican campaign, including an emotional homecoming rally for Wisconsin native son Ryan.
With the scope of the campaign taking firm shape as Ryan joins on, campaign events Saturday and Sunday saw dramatic bumps from the previous weeks and months, when crowds for stump speeches, rallies and meet-and-greets were often measured in the hundreds.
Romney's bid to defeat President Barack Obama saw setbacks with poll numbers slipping in recent weeks, but grassroots enthusiasm and passion for the Republican pair has soared since the VP announcement.
It reached a crescendo of sorts Sunday in Waukesha, where several thousand people packed into a field at an expo center to embrace their Wisconsin hero turned VP candidate.
Romney staff said it was as many as 13,000, which would make it the largest Romney campaign event to date.
Ryan stepped off the campaign bus to a thunderous ovation as he put his head in his hands, wiped his face and then bear-hugged Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, US Senator Ron Johnson, and others before lifting his arms triumphantly in the air.
"I'm a Wisconsinite through and through, and I've just got to tell you how much this means to be home," Ryan said, his voice cracking.
"My veins run with cheese, bratwurst and a little Spotted Cow, Leiny's and some Miller," he said, referring to traditional regional food and beer.
Romney admitted to choking up watching the Ryan love fest, but the presumptive nominee turned feisty when a heckler briefly interrupted his speech, using the opportunity to launch into criticism of Obama for a particularly negative series of campaign ads.
"This is a campaign about ideas, about greatness," Romney said to a roar. "Mr. President, take your campaign out of the gutter. Let's talk about the real issues."
The event capped two days of campaigning in swings states Virginia, North Carolina and Wisconsin, and a distinguishing feature of the latest events has been the size and enthusiasm of the crowds.
"So many more people turned out than what they expected," Carolyn Black, who with her two sisters was decked out in red white and blue pins and a straw hat, told AFP after Romney and Ryan addressed a raucous crowd at a furniture maker in the North Carolina town of High Point.
"They're here because we need a new president in the White House!"
Only 1,000 or so people were squeezed in the furniture factory, but as many as 10,000 more were patiently waiting in overflow areas or lining the roads.
"I saw John McCain in 2008 and it wasn't half as much as this," said Larry Flannery, a 62-year-old private investigator, speaking of that year's Republican nominee.
"It's very good to see the support that Ryan can bring to the party. This is going to energize the campaign," Flannery said.
Hours after the Ryan announcement early Saturday, thousands of cheering supporters waving Romney-Ryan banners swarmed a town square in the Washington suburb of Manassas, Virginia to hear the pair speak.
Ryan may shape up to be a retail politics superstar. He's 42 and bursting with energy, and while he is a wonkish budget hawk who loves crunching numbers and poring over data, he has already shown a personable side on the trail.
He bounded out of the bus in Mooresville, North Carolina, his shirt sleeves rolled up, to address supporters in an overflow area, while Romney high-fived about a dozen of them.
Ryan highlighted the contrast between what he described as a bloated Obama government and a streamlined Romney administration, all the while maintaining a folksy, personable delivery that belies a lengthy career in Washington.
"We can either stay on the path that we are on -- a nation in debt, a nation in doubt, a nation in despair, a nation of high unemployment, where we're giving our children a diminished future -- or we can change this thing and get this country back on the right track," he said.
"We can do this."
A test of Republican grassroots motivation may come in Florida on Monday, when Romney holds two campaign events without Ryan, who travels to Iowa to attend the state fair.
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