GREENVILLE — Paul Whittington spent four hours Monday waiting to hear Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan speak – half the time was in the rain and half was in temperatures above 85 degrees – but it was worth all the aggravation to hear from the Wisconsin congressman.
“Absolutely, well worth the wait,” Whittington said. “No regrets at all, a well-spent Monday, a well-spent Labor Day.”
Whittington, a Kinston resident who also serves as a member of the executive committee of the Lenoir County GOP, was one of 2,018 people who filled the Student Recreation Center at ECU to capacity.
Stuart Johnson of Kinston was another. He came with his wife and 15-year-old daughter Rochelle.
“I think this is the most important election in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s a tipping point for our country where we will permanently decide America’s course from here on.”
Rochelle Johnson, a student at Pathway Christian Academy in Goldsboro, said she had never been to a political rally before.
“I just came with my parents because I thought it would be interesting. . . . It’s pretty cool,” she said.
Alan Nielson, assistant director of facilities for the university, said the local fire marshal cut off the crowd in the recreation center when it reached capacity.
Thousands of ECU students and Ryan supporters from throughout Eastern North Carolina spent hours Monday morning waiting in lines that snaked through the area around the SRC, and an overflow crowd in the hundreds was settled in the nearby Hendrix Theater in the Mendenhall Student Center.
Many more spectators heard Ryan’s speech outside over loudspeakers.
“No matter what generation you come from, this really is the most important election of your lifetime,” Ryan told the cheering crowd.
He said the results of this year’s election would “determine the path of America for at least a generation.”
Ryan was introduced by former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for North Carolina governor.
McCrory described Ryan as “grounded, he’s smart and he has great values, and he is a natural leader.”
“One thing I know is, because my parents were born in Wisconsin, Wisconsin values are very similar to Eastern North Carolina values,” he said. “They love their family, they love their faith, they love people who work hard – that’s Paul Ryan!”
Ryan was selected last month to be the running mate of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s nominee for U.S. president.
Ryan is in the midst of his seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives and is serving as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
He is a native of Janesville, Wis.
He has put forth a controversial plan for next year’s federal budget, which opponents have stated cuts spending too deeply and could hurt those in the greatest need.
“We have got to stop spending money we just don’t have,” he told the crowd.
Ryan espouses conservative views of limited government and encouraging private-sector growth by getting government “out of the way.”
“The way to growth and prosperity is by unleashing the entrepreneur,” he said.
He is also a social conservative, speaking against abortion and gay marriage, but his speech Monday focused on fiscal conservatism.
He also spoke of the need to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the comprehensive health care reform package championed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and passed by the U.S. Congress, then held by the Democrats.
Opponents have derisively termed the ACA “Obamacare,” and that derision was on full display Monday – one spectator yelled, “Obama sucks!” as Ryan spoke about repealing the health care reform plan.
He and the speakers who preceded him Monday noted the Democratic National Convention, scheduled to begin today in Charlotte.
“This is a defining moment . . . the president cannot tell you, ‘You are better off (than four years ago),’ ” Ryan said.
“We need leaders like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan who will tell the truth about unemployment, about the state of the economy, and about the change in fiscal policy we so desperately need so that my children and your children won’t have to pay this generation’s debts,” Murphy said. “We need leaders who truly understand servant leadership.”
Murphy, who celebrated his 32nd birthday Monday, attended with his wife Jessica.
He later called the experience “surreal,” especially with TV cameras from national networks such as Fox recording the event.
“It’s really great to have them here in Eastern North Carolina. . . . We are a focal point of the national campaign,” Murphy said.
Jessica Murphy added: “The crowd responded well, so I was very proud.”
The crowd outside
People from all over North Carolina lined up early Monday morning to see Ryan.
The doors to the Student Recreation Center opened at 11 a.m., and the campaign rally began around 1:30 p.m.
The lines snaked toward the doors of the SRC from multiple directions, and were filled with people of all ages and races.
“We think this is the most important election of their lifetimes,” said Scott Dacey of New Bern, who came with his wife Jennifer, their 11-year-old daughter Drew, 9-year-old son Jack – both children attend Arendell Parrott Academy in Kinston – and the children’s grandmother, Gwen Joyner of Morehead City.
“I think he’s a genius,” Joyner said of Ryan.
Jack Dacey wore an oversized plastic hunk of cheddar cheese on his head – the typical “cheesehead” worn by Green Bay Packers fans – in honor of the home state of Ryan, and his father.
Scott Dacey, who serves as a Craven County commissioner and the vice chairman of the Craven GOP, is a native of Wisconsin and said he is a longtime friend of Ryan.
“He’s just very well balanced, well mannered, just a great guy with a great family,” Dacey said.
Not everyone in line was a Romney/Ryan supporter.
Matt Cirricione, an ECU freshman from Charlotte, wore a homemade T-shirt supporting Obama.
“I want to hear the other side of the political world,” Cirricione said while waiting in line with two friends.
Sam Hodges, a sophomore from Charlotte, acknowledged he was a Republican, something Cirricione said he found out “yesterday.”
“So this friendship might not last much longer,” Hodges joked.
Their friend, sophomore Theodis White of Rocky Mount, expressed his neutrality.
“I’m just coming here with an open mind,” he said.
David Anderson can be reached at 252-559-1077 or David.Anderson@Kinston.com. Follow him on Twitter at DavidFreePress.