Special Reports

GOP Primary: Among conservatives in rural Pa, Romney ‘the lesser of two evils’

Ken Johnson, 80, a conservative Republican from Lycoming County, Pa., plans to vote for Mitt Romney for president. Photo by Louie Lazar.

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa – In the wide, sparsely populated valley below Bald Eagle Mountain, about a block from the Lycoming County Courthouse at 212 Pine Street, David French sat in an office behind a desk piled with booklets of the U.S. Constitution and leaflets reading, “Stop Obamacare in Pennsylvania.” French, a board member of the Williamsport Tea Party who “lives up in the hills” in nearby Cogan House Township and considers himself a “conservative Republican, with an emphasis on conservative,” is far from enthusiastic about Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and presumptive GOP nominee.

“Nobody likes him. Nobody wants him,” French said Monday morning inside Tea Party headquarters, sharing what he considers the accepted view among fellow conservative activists towards Romney. “He’s a New England establishment Republican. He comes from a part of the party that should’ve been dumped 30 years ago.”

But French, a serious-looking man of 69 with his thinning hair buzzed into a crew cut, said that he will nonetheless back Romney in November, if reluctantly.

“We’ll support whoever the [Republican] party comes up with,” he said.

French is one of several conservatives in this Pennsylvania county who, in interviews conducted here on Monday and Tuesday, expressed deep skepticism of Romney and his right-wing credentials. Yet for a majority of these likely voters, the prospect of a second term for Obama is so frightening that they remain committed to punching the Republican ticket in November.

A fast growing city in the heart of central Pennsylvania, Williamsport is the self-hailed “Epicenter of the Natural Gas Industry,” and home to the Little League World Series. With about 27,000 residents, it has the largest population of any city in the greater Susquehanna Valley and in surrounding Lycoming County, the largest county in all of Pennsylvania. This rural, poor county, with an average income of about $27,000, is also one of the state’s most conservative: John McCain defeated President Obama by 24 points here in 2008. Four years earlier, George W Bush trounced Senator John Kerry by nearly 37. Once known as the “City of Churches,” spires dot the horizon, and every quarter hour church bells echo throughout the valley.

Under a steady late morning rain in downtown Williamsport on Monday, conservative Republican Marcia Johnson, a senior citizen who is both a pilot and a standout bridge player, said that she will happily support Romney in the general election. But she did have early doubts.

“At first I wasn’t for him because I think Massachusetts is kind of liberal,” said Johnson, who initially supported Herman Cain because she thought he could attract black voters. So why has she decided to back Romney in November?

“Well, I’m sure as hell not voting for Obama,” she said, her spirit peppy and her hair in a gray bonnet. “I think Obama is ruining the country. He’s a socialist. He’s a Marxist.”

Her husband, Williamsport native Ken Johnson, a talkative, cheery 80-year-old wearing a jacket with an airplane logo, had little to say about Romney, but agreed that removing Obama from office was a priority.

“Anybody but Obama,” he said, wearing a hat with the letters UFO, referring to United Flying Octogenarians, a club of active airline pilots over age 80. “His government is out to destroy the country.”

“He’s never really shown his birth certificate,” Ken continued. He also said he doesn’t think Obama is in the country legally. His wife nodded.

“I can’t understand why he hasn’t been impeached already,” said Marcia. She added that she believes Obama is a Muslim.

But not all conservatives here are as open to voting for Romney. Or as cordial.

About a mile away, a huge, middle-aged man with a white, grizzly beard emerged from his house on Washington Boulevard, next to Williamsport Cemetery. A visitor had inquired about the man’s garage, and about the sign on its door that read, “East End Gun Specialty Sporting Goods and Live Bait.” Asked whether he plans on voting in November, the man, who declined to disclose his name, uttered a racial epithet in reference to President Obama, then turned angry.

“If it’s between that jackass we have in office, and that moron from New England, I’d rather not bother,” he barked, with numerous expletives peppered throughout the sentence. He said he has supported Republicans in the past, but that he prefers not to discuss politics. Asked if he had voted in the 2008 Election, the man turned silent.

“There’s the door,” he ordered, pointing in the direction of the cemetery.

At 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, at the same time polls throughout Pennsylvania opened under still-overcast skies, Lycoming County Commissioner Tony Mussare, a Republican who “leans Tea Party,” said over oatmeal and coffee that it is “kind of a joke that [Romney] is the guy the Republicans are going to nominate.”

“My God, Mitt Romney – are you kidding me?” cried Mussare, a short, passionate man with a round face who makes solid eye contact. “Go look at his flip flop videos. Almost every notable policy he’s changed his mind. Is that a conservative? I don’t think so.”

He cited Romney’s past positions on gun control, abortion, and health care as just a few reasons why he thinks many in the Tea Party will not vote for the former Massachusetts governor.

“Now will I vote for him? I certainly will if he’s our candidate,” he said.

Mussare, a small business owner, believes that Romney will “excel in understanding the needs of businesspeople,” and that the economy is the country’s top concern. Plus, there’s another, more significant issue.

“Not everything that Barack Obama does is evil,” he said, “But he’s further to the left than a socialist. Socialism wouldn’t be enough for this guy, and I don’t mean this jokingly.”