MORRISVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney rallied thousands of people in the Pennsylvania cold Sunday night, using precious time to make an 11th-hour pitch for a state he all but ignored until the last week of the presidential campaign.
"The people of America understand we're taking back the White House because we're going to win Pennsylvania," Romney said as he looked over the expansive, darkened field at a farm in the Philadelphia suburbs, where people had been waiting for nearly two hours longer than planned in temperatures that dropped near freezing.
"Send him home! Send him home!" the crowd chanted in response, urging him to beat President Barack Obama.
Romney has visited Pennsylvania during the general election campaign, but has held only small events usually connected to a separate fundraising stop. Coming here two days before the election was, in fact, a game-time decision.
Until the election's final week, Romney's team had not made any significant push to win in a state that's backed Democratic presidential candidates since 1988. Its 20 electoral votes were all but written off, its airwaves free from the deluge of ads that have swamped the nine states that were contested.
It's part of a bid to find the 270 votes Romney needs to win the White House. Polls are stubbornly close in neighboring Ohio, and Romney's path to victory without that state's 18 electoral college votes requires winning nearly all the other battleground states.
So on Tuesday, a week before the election, Romney bought $2 million in TV ads in Pennsylvania. Republican groups poured in an additional $9 million. On Thursday, campaign managers quietly began calling places they thought would be big enough to hold the kind of crowd that could demonstrate the state was really in play. They eventually picked Shady Brook Farm, judging that a 20-acre field could be turned into a campaign event site that would accommodate up to 30,000 people.
The Obama campaign insists the move is desperation. Republicans acknowledge that decisions to buy ads in Pennsylvania were made, in part, because millions of dollars were still available — and airtime in other swing states had simply run out, already filled with political ads.
But former President Bill Clinton — now arguably Obama's most important advocate — will spend all day there Monday, even visiting Vice President Joe Biden's hometown of Scranton. Obama and Democrats planned to spend more than $3.7 million on TV ads.
On Sunday night, Romney campaign spokesman Rick Gorka said 25,000 people went through security at the Morrisville event. No independent crowd estimate was available.
"This has got to be a thrill of a lifetime. This is amazing. What a welcome," said Ann Romney as she introduced her husband, with the enormous Romney-logoed campaign bus puffing in the background.
"I just hope they come back and buy Bucks County produce," joked Paul Fleming, the farm's owner, as he waited in the bleachers erected next to giant flags hanging from cranes.
Many in the crowd, though, didn't stay to hear Romney's speech. Attendees streamed out of the event even as the Republican nominee spoke — he had been delayed for more than an hour and a half at his previous stop, in Cleveland, leaving the thousands in Pennsylvania to wait for his campaign bus to arrive.
After Romney arrived, a Secret Service agent, concerned about security, prevented people from leaving the event, cordoned off by metal security barriers. Attendees complained of needing to use restrooms; one was concerned about a child who had gotten too cold.
Once Romney campaign staffers were informed, volunteers began escorting small groups of people out. Agents insisted that they not be allowed to leave en masse. More people wanted to leave than could be quickly accommodated.
"I feel like I've been let out of jail," said one man as he walked away from the barriers.
Pennsylvania is a state that's proved difficult for Republicans. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-3. Despite trying, no Republican presidential candidate has won the state since 1988. The closest was in 2004, when President George W. Bush came up 2.5 percentage points short of John Kerry.
Romney's push comes as neighboring New Jersey has been crushed by Superstorm Sandy, and Republican Gov. Chris Christie has embraced Obama and the millions in federal emergency relief the state will need to recover. Eastern Pennsylvania voters, who often can watch local news from either Philadelphia or New York, have recently been treated to images of the president shouldering his duties as commander in chief and comforting families who have lost everything.
Romney was clearly aware of that reality as he campaigned in a town just a few miles from the Jersey border.
"Thanks also to the governors that are dealing with this tragedy, particularly the governor of New Jersey, Gov. Christie," Romney said Sunday, some of his only recent words of praise for a man he considered picking for his running mate. "He's giving it all of his heart and his passion to help the people of his state. They're in a hard way, and we appreciate his hard work."
Follow Kasie Hunt on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kasie