EAGAN, Minn. — Mitt Romney talks about his love for America almost every day. Twice now, the Republican presidential front-runner has even broken into song.
"Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain," Romney crooned Wednesday, standing on stage in a warehouse here as the crowd sang along. He did the same earlier in the week at a Florida retirement community.
Those performances were a campaign-trail crescendo of sorts for Romney. He has spent months traveling — from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina to Florida — proclaiming "I love America" and declaring his appreciation for what he often calls "the national hymns of our nation." Among them: "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful," which he calls his favorite partly because his mother used to sing it.
While all politicians emphasize patriotism, Romney arguably takes it to a whole new level. He sprinkles this adoration-of-the-nation theme throughout his typical campaign speech that he delivers at least once a day. The pitch is short on policy. Instead, it's almost entirely an ode to patriotism. He has built his entire campaign around the theme. His logo, his bus and the paperback version of his latest book are all tagged "Believe in America."
It's intended to help him appeal to voters who believe America is in decline — but who remain optimistic about their own futures in a country that's always emphasized hard work as a way to get ahead. And by design or not, Romney's pronouncements also are rife with suggestions that his opponents, particularly President Barack Obama, don't share his appreciation of country.
"I will never apologize for America," Romney says often.
Romney also emphasizes what he calls his belief that America is exceptional — implying that his Democratic rival has a different view even though Obama has said that he sees the country as exceptional, too. All that plays to a belief in conservative circles that Obama has traveled the country making excuses for America's involvement in foreign countries.
"We have a president who I don't think understands the nature of America, the power of opportunity and freedom," Romney told a crowd in Derry, N.H., last month. "I want to bring these things back to America so we have a brighter future for our kids."
During an appearance in North Liberty, Iowa, Romney said: "The president said he wants to fundamentally transform America. I kind of like America. I'm not looking for it to be fundamentally transformed into something else. I don't want it to become like Europe." It's a comment he's repeatedly made.
It's no secret why he's chosen this pitch.
Over the last decade, polls have regularly found that roughly half of all Americans — and in most cases way more than that — think the nation is going in the wrong direction. The exceptions occurred during George W. Bush's first term and during the first few months of Obama's presidency.
In November, 54 percent of Americans said in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that the country's recent rough patch is the start of a longer-term global decline where the U.S. is no longer the leading country in the world. Some 40 percent suggested it was temporary.
Despite the pessimism about America's standing in the world, people have grown more optimistic than they have been in recent years that America itself is growing stronger. Only 37 percent said things would get better over the next five years when surveyed by NBC/Wall Street Journal in August 2010. That number jumped to 53 percent in January, coinciding with growth in the economy.
In some cases, Romney gets corny and he repeatedly combines the lines with a story about how his parents drove him across the country in the family Rambler to see America's national parks.
"I love the founding documents," the candidate says frequently before crowds as he quotes from the Declaration of Independence. "I love the Constitution!" is another Romney favorite. That includes, by the way, everything that's been added to it. "I love all the amendments!" he said in September. "I love the Second Amendment. I love the 10th Amendment."
The construction of some of Romney's remarks rankle Democrats, who have continuously defended Obama from ongoing accusations that he is "other" or un-American.
"You can make an accusation about what you believe somebody wants to do, but that's very different than saying that someone doesn't understand the nature of their country," said Kiki McLean, a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked on several presidential campaigns. "So then the question comes: Are you insinuating something?"
Democrats have always been vulnerable to questions of their patriotism given their frequent anti-war stances and criticism of the status quo. But the spotlight has been even brighter on the first black president and one who has a foreign-sounding name.
Obama has faced repeated questions about his citizenship and right to be president, as well as his religion. His wife, first lady Michelle Obama, set off a conservative firestorm during the 2008 primary campaign when she said, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."
Romney aides say his words are simply a reflection of the candidate's beliefs and aren't disparaging of Democrats. And the former Massachusetts governor occasionally acknowledges that Democrats also care about the country.
"Good Democrats love America, too," Romney said at a chilly outdoor rally in West Des Moines the day of the Iowa caucuses. And in August, Romney mentioned Obama and told NBC News, "I know he loves America."
Even so, Romney has sought to use patriotic themes to appeal to Americans' inherent belief in their country as he blames Obama for allowing the country to decline.
"These last three years," Romney says often, "they are a detour, not our destiny."