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Every day on the campaign trail, President Obama and Mitt Romney offer competing visions for the country, and we report on contrasts in their policy proposals. But now, another sort of comparison. NPR's Ari Shapiro has attended both Romney and Obama rallies, and found that they feel completely different.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's a hot night in Leesburg, Virginia, and Dorothy Fontaine has been standing outside of this high school since the sun was high in the sky.
And so it's now - it's a little after 7 o'clock, so you've been - around five hours?
DOROTHY FONTAINE: Hey, it's substantially after 7 o'clock. Yes, we have. And, you know, this doesn't actually even count the time in line the other day, to get the tickets.
SHAPIRO: So why is it so important to you to see the guy, that you would - you know - spend that much time and effort?
FONTAINE: It's the president of the United States. I mean, isn't it cool to go see the president of the United States?
SHAPIRO: Compare that to Beatrice Sutton, who dropped by a Romney event outside Chicago this morning. She showed up a little more than an hour before the candidate arrived.
BEATRICE SUTTON: It was very simple, very simple. Walked right in. They wanded me - or whatever you call it - and I walked right in and grabbed the last four seats in the place.
SHAPIRO: In this race, there are lots of differences between the two candidates. One's a Democrat, the other's a Republican; one's black, the other's white. But the biggest difference may be that one is the leader of the free world.
GORDON JOHNDROE: A lot of people just get excited when the president of the United States comes to their hometown.
SHAPIRO: Gordon Johndroe, of APCO Worldwide, worked in the Bush White House for eight years. He remembers when President George W. Bush attended the Daytona 500.
JOHNDROE: That big old, blue and white 747 that says "United States of America, Air Force One" comes buzzing over the field, lands. And then the president and his motorcade drive the distance around the track - for him to get to the grandstands - as the red and blue lights are flashing; helicopters are overhead. And the crowd just goes wild.
SHAPIRO: That's something only an incumbent can do. Even before he was president, Barack Obama was a rock-star candidate. By now, it's practically a scripted part of his stump speech that someone in the audience shouts "I love you," and the president replies...
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I love you back!
SHAPIRO: There's a wound-up passion in the crowd, that has become a signature part of the Obama brand. That event in Mansfield, Ohio, last week had about 2,000 people in the audience; smallish, by Obama standards. For Mitt Romney, crowds are more often in the hundreds. He has tried to turn the president's glitz and glamour against the Obama campaign. If the president's campaign optics suggest "this guy's a big deal," Romney's optics convey "this guy is a problem-solver."
MITT ROMNEY: I am very concerned about how we can get Americans back in good-paying jobs with a bright and prosperous future. And let me tell you, I know how to do it.
SHAPIRO: In Evansville, Indiana, on Saturday, Romney's only public appearance was a low-key stop at a barbecue shack.
ROMNEY: And I know how to do it because I spent my career in the private sector in businesses, small and large.
SHAPIRO: But Romney has his big, raucous rallies, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROMNEY RALLY)
UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS #1: (Clapping, chanting in unison) Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!...
ROMNEY: Thank you...
SHAPIRO: The crowds there chant his name, while the crowds at Obama rallies chant the same rallying cry as every incumbent who has ever run for re-election.
(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA RALLY)
UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS #2: (Chanting in union) Four more years! Four more years! Four more...
SHAPIRO: Four more years. The crowds don't just sound different. They look different, too. When I asked 8-year-old Tyree Gelzer about this at an Obama rally in Orlando, the look on his face said, du-uh.
TYREE GELZER: Well, he's the first black president.
SHAPIRO: At Romney rallies, it can be difficult to find any people of color in the crowd. The Republican Party acknowledges this challenge, and that's one reason the list of Republican convention speakers - out this week - includes Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley and Condoleezza Rice. All three have broken racial and gender barriers.
(SOUNDBITE OF KID ROCK SONG, "BORN FREE")
SHAPIRO: Any campaign rally ends with a stirring burst of music that plays on repeat while the candidate shakes hands with supporters. The song choices here say more than almost anything else about the differences between the candidates. Mitt Romney exits the stage to "Born Free," Kid Rock's anthem to individualism. Barack Obama goes with Bruce Springsteen's hymn to collective accomplishment "We Take Care of Our Own."
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN")
SHAPIRO: In short, what's different between Obama and Romney campaign events? Everything but the flag. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, traveling with the Romney campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)