Salena Zito

TUNKHANNOCK, Pa.- Mitt Romney stood in a closet-sized room just before taking the stage where an old sawdust mill once sat, the nearby Endless Mountains framing his silhouette.

"I don't want to make anyone wait," he told a staffer before speaking on a gravel-covered ridge surrounded by shale-gas tankers and other 18-wheelers. "People work hard all day. They don't need to stand out in the cold."

Later, nearing the end of his speech, he paused, looked at the surrounding ridge of mountains, and declared: "I guess I don't need to tell you guys but, wow, this is beautiful country!"

The crowd applauded in agreement.

It seems a long time since anyone running for president told voters how exceptional our country's landscape and people really are. It is a moment many voters have waited for.

Romney has a rare opportunity to beat an incumbent president but it won't be easy -- not because of conservative disunity (which the media largely exaggerate) but because Barack Obama, like every sitting president, has advantages over any challenger.

For Romney, focusing on American exceptionalism is the key; in fact, it could change the entire general-election debate.

Romney insisted it's at the core of almost every speech he gives. "Unfortunately," he conceded, "the focus tends to be on gaffes or something silly -- but listen to my speeches, it is what I truly believe."

"You can see that in him," said Philip Yauguy, a retired businessman from Scranton. "This is a guy who truly does care about the country."

Everyone on the right and most in the center can find something to like about that. For too long, we have focused on how radical the other side is or on how the country is going to hell in a handbasket.

By embracing American exceptionalism, Romney can reach out and appeal to traditionalists on terms they understand, terms of which they are proud.

That would force Obama to defend America as exceptional, too -- thereby alienating much of his base and forcing him to address his past serial bowing to foreign leaders and his blame-America rhetoric -- or to run as the first president who doesn't think America is exceptional.

To better connect with traditionalist voters, Romney must stress that he is a fighter. (He's already demonstrated a take-no-prisoners instinct against his Republican challengers.)

He absolutely should not back down from any opportunity to mix it up with Obama, an icy intellectual who dislikes having his lectures interrupted or his claims of expertise challenged.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.