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Romney big (money) winner in visit to Vero

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of March 15, 2012)
Photo: Mitt Romney socializes with guests at Quail Valley during the $2,500-a-plate luncheon.

The main dining room at the Quail Valley River Club was busting at the seams by noon Monday as more than 250 people waited for the arrival of presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

On that day, he was both the birthday boy, celebrating his 65th, and the guest of honor. Instead of presents, people brought checks – big ones – with the minimum entry a suggested $2,500 donation to the campaign.

With event co-chairs and the host committee making the private event possible, the Romney campaign likely netted close to $750,000 in the former Massachusetts governor's three-hour whistle stop from the Vero Beach Airport to Quail Valley.

After greetings on the tarmac and a wardrobe change from jeans into a suit, the high-energy Romney shook hands, slapped backs, made a speech and listened to a multitude of encouraging words uttered through the ear-to-ear smiles of mostly island residents at the luncheon.

"It was a great event, a good speech," said Castaway Cove resident Jim Harpring, special counsel to the Indian River County Sheriff's Office.

Harpring rescheduled a court appearance so he could show his support for Romney. His wife Sandi, a candidate herself for Indian River County supervisor of elections, worked the event as a volunteer, helping to make things go smoothly. A long-time worker bee for Romney, Sandi said she's known the family for years.

For her, the event was both a reunion of sorts and an opportunity to introduce Romney to some new friends in Vero. She said Romney's platform resonates with barrier island residents because they are fiscally conservative and desperately want to get a handle on government spending that many see as out of control.

"People are supporting Gov. Romney because he is a proven problem solver – a person of strong character, integrity – and he is ready to make the tough decisions to cut spending and focus on turning our economy around," she said.

"The current president believes in big government and that government can solve our problems. Romney believes in the core principles of the Republican Party," she said. "He understands that government doesn't have a revenue problem – it has a spending problem."

Political fundraisers can sometimes wreak havoc on a venue, but proprietors Steve Mulvey, Kevin Given and the staff at Quail Valley handled the VIP crowd with ease, as the club hosts hundreds of events per year, from civic group breakfasts to elaborate wedding parties.

Mulvey personally directed traffic from a post near the guard house and Given patrolled in his golf cart, making sure everyone was well accommodated. A team of about 10 red-vested valets attended to the vehicles and shuttled drivers back and forth.

Inside, the standing-room-only crowd listened to a confident and determined Romney, declaring that the 2012 election is "one we have to win." After the speech, he fielded questions on topics ranging from the economy to immigration.

A bit star struck by their favorite candidate, locals fired up their iPhones and cameras, snapping pictures of friends and family with Romney to e-mail to friends or to share via social media. Within minutes, shaky snapshots began popping up on Facebook pages emanating from all over Vero Beach and its environs.

Even folks who were not ticketed patrons at the event got to experience the fringes of the celebration and were able to snap a picture or two.

"This is so exciting, and he's so handsome. I would have paid $2,500 to go to this if I would have been invited," said a svelte, blonde woman, a Quail Valley member who happened to be on the property using the fitness center.

The invitees were a select group, with a heavy representation from John's Island and Windsor.

Event chairs Judy and Lew Eisenberg of Windsor were joined in the effort by 18 couples, including Tuny and Toby Hill.

Invitations were not doled out to all the usual Republican Party members, but only to a select group of heavy-hitters who want to help thrust Romney beyond the primary squabbles to become their party's clear choice for president.

Romney was thronged by Secret Service and escorted in by a Vero Beach police cruiser, but attendees had unfettered access to him once inside the walls of Quail Valley.

The big-ticket luncheon was their opportunity to get up close and personal, to create a lasting memory with a man they revere as the leader who might pull the country out of the lingering economic slump with his executive experience and business acumen.

Some walked out with autographed photos, others with campaign buttons and bumper stickers. They had already voted for Romney in the primary, they noted, but said it was time to start gearing up for the Republican National Convention on Aug. 27 in Tampa and November's general election.

Despite the excitement over the event, life at the club went on as usual during the luncheon.

Many people had no idea what was going on;  they had just stopped in for lunch.

Spring breakers used the pool and members dined on the back patio, where they could walk up and see Romney giving his speech.

As the event broke up, a row of a half-dozen young women, clad in colorful bikinis, leaned against a railing hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who hopes to be the next leader of the free world.

Be they young or not so young, the women exited the event chatting about how much more handsome the GOP candidate was in person than on television.

"He's so cute," said real estate broker Matilde Sorensen as she stepped out onto the veranda of the club to rearrange a sales appointment for one of her clients who was inside so he could stay 'till the end with Romney and the other supporters. The luncheon was one of two major Republican events Monday, a pep rally of sorts for the evening's Lincoln Day Dinner featuring the controversial, conservative pundit and author, Ann Coulter.

The dinner, which is the annual blowout fundraiser for the Indian River County GOP, was held at Bent Pine Country Club west of town.