Salena Zito

QUAKERTOWN, Pa.- Standing behind the cash register of a Wawa store, a young man handing change to a customer was distracted by Mitt Romney’s “Believe in America — Every Town Counts” campaign bus arriving outside.

“He’s here! He came here!” the young man shouted, grinning from ear to ear.

Customers who happened to be gassing up their vehicles at the attached service station, and those who happened to be shopping at a nearby mall, gathered as close as the Secret Service would allow, to catch a glimpse of or to shake hands with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Most news reports that day led with the charge that Romney “dodged” (a term coined in endless tweets by a frustrated Obama campaign staffer) a visit by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to Romney’s original destination.

What those reports missed was that Romney pulled off a spontaneous visit to a location lacking any staged comforts.

Except for a handful of supporters who learned of the venue change, Romney was on his own: No handmade signs from devoted fans. No local elected officials to ease his transition or to crack jokes. No balloons. No perfectly timed advance movements.

It was the sort of unstructured event that causes campaign staffers to prematurely gray.

Despite a reputation for being awkward among regular folks, Romney proved to be capable of acting on the fly. He found a way to take a potential confrontation with Rendell (and a parking lot full of paid hecklers) and turn it into a sharp learning curve for himself and his staff.

In a postcard setting of the type of town that he accuses President Obama of leaving behind, Romney found a way to connect with people.

Bucks County is no sure thing for Romney. It is your classic Philadelphia “collar county” that swung to Obama in 2008 and back to Republicans in the gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and U.S. House races of 2010. It is a mix of suburban neighborhoods, rural farms and pockets of manufacturing — a haven for Philadelphians seeking a home outside the city.

It is no sure thing for Obama, either: Recently released election results from April’s primary show that 100,000 Democrats across the state opted not to vote for the president while casting votes for other Democrats. In Bucks County, 2,000 left the Obama ballot unchecked.

Obama held a town-hall meeting here in April 2011, part of a short-lived tour promoting his “clean energy” platform; he visited Gamesa Wind USA in Fairless Hills, where mighty U.S. Steel once had a massive steel-production campus.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.