LITTLE ROCK — Republican Mitt Romney raked in just over $2 million for his presidential campaign during a fundraising stop in Arkansas on Wednesday that raised the spirits of state Republicans and the ire of Democrats and protesters.
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee appeared at a series of receptions at the Peabody Hotel, followed by a $50,000-per-couple dinner at the Capital Hotel. Romney’s campaign called it the biggest Republican fundraiser in Arkansas history.
Romney’s jet touched down at the private Supermarine terminal shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday. He waved as he left the plane and shook hands with security personnel before being driven downtown in an SUV motorcade.
The former Massachusetts governor did not speak to the public or the press. He was not accompanied by his running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
In a 20-minute speech to about 250 people in the Peabody Grand Ballroom, Romney said, "I appreciate your applause and your money."
Romney pledged that as president he would make the U.S. energy independent, fix education and get rid of the federal health care reform law known as "Obamacare." He drew enthusiastic applause when he said that President Obama’s "you didn’t build that" comment in reference to business owners "was not a gaffe, it was a philosophy."
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, Arkansas chairman of Romney for President, said about 35 people attended the private dinner and heard Romney discuss his decision to pick Ryan, the sponsor of a controversial budget proposal that would phase out Medicare in its present form.
"I encouraged the governor," Griffin said. "I said, ‘When you’re leaning forward into a discussion of Medicare, keep doing it. It’s the right thing to do. We need to be talking about it because otherwise, if we do nothing to Medicare it goes bankrupt.’"
Griffin said the money raised in Arkansas will make a difference for Romney’s campaign.
"This state is going to go overwhelmingly for Romney, I think that’s pretty widely known, but what we were able to do is help the national effort by helping him financially tonight," he said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr said he appreciated Romney’s visit.
"In Arkansas, he’s the only presidential contender that’s showing up, and he’s going to win Arkansas big," Darr said.
State Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, said he found Romney "very personable, very articulate."
"(He was) just matter-of-fact in the sense that, ‘It’s jobs and the economy, we’ve got to deal with the deficit, I’ve got the experience to do that,’" Baker said of Romney’s speech at the Peabody.
State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement issued by the party, "We are honored to welcome Gov. Mitt Romney to Arkansas – a state that will not only elect the Romney/Ryan ticket to the White House, but will elect a new conservative majority in Little Rock that will offer bold reforms and put our state back on the comeback trail."
Webb said Romney’s visit "shows how much he values our state’s support and stands in contrast to the nearly six-year gap since President Obama’s last visit to Arkansas where he and Gov. Beebe stood shoulder-to-shoulder together" at a rally for Beebe in Little Rock, when Obama was still in the U.S. Senate.
Obama lost by 20 points to Republican John McCain in Arkansas’ 2008 presidential election, and Romney is heavily favored to win the state in November.
The state Democratic Party ridiculed Romney’s visit Wednesday.
"Clearly, Mitt Romney is so out of touch that he’s only interested in meeting with the super-wealthy instead of listening to the needs of everyday Arkansans, which one would expect coming from someone who selected the architect of a plan to give huge tax breaks to corporations in order to end Medicare as we know it," Democratic Party spokeswoman Candace Martin said, taking a swipe at Ryan.
Martin added, "It’s no wonder the Romney campaign is clearly keeping Paul Ryan away from Arkansas because of his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system which would devastate Arkansas seniors and families."
About 30 protesters gathered outside the Peabody and the Capital Hotel, which are across the street from each other. Some identified themselves as members of the Occupy movement and some said they were there to protest Romney’s and Ryan’s opposition to the DREAM Act, a proposal that would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.
"He’s obviously just going to become a puppet of the corporations" if elected, said Gordon Fisher of Occupy Little Rock, who was holding a sign that read, "Corporations are not people!!!"
Miguel Alvarez of Alexander said he was there "to remind Romney that if he doesn’t change his views on immigration he probably won’t get the Hispanic vote."
At times the Occupy protesters broke into chants of, "Romney was sent by the 1 percent!"
Some passing motorists honked, waved or gave thumbs-up signs to the protesters. Others shouted support for Romney.
"People on welfare are bleeding this country dry! The rich make it go!" one woman shouted from a passing car.