SARASOTA -- About 4,000 Mitt Romney supporters battled the heat and humidity Thursday afternoon for a chance to hear the Republican presidential candidate speak at a free grassroots rally at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.
The crowd chanted, "Mitt, Mitt," as they waited for his arrival.
"We need a job creator and not a community organizer in the White House," said Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, in his welcoming statement.
Paper fans bearing the names of Romney and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan were incessantly waved at the outdoor rally. Paramedics assisted attendees affected by the heat index of 95 as temperatures reached the high 80s.
"This is a critical election about the soul of America," Romney said to an energized crowd. "It's time to get a president who understands how to get America working, and I do. I want to restore the principles that made America the hope of the world."
In his approximately 15-minute speech, Romney addressed health care, the economy and small businesses.
Domenick Falconetti, owner of Domenick's Blinds in Sarasota, pulled a trailer to the event with "Our small business which we built is 4 Romney."
"My wife and I worked very hard to start this business. It's insulting that (President Barack) Obama said we didn't build it," he said. "I believe everything Mitt Romney stands for. Small businesses and the economy are in trouble. The world is not a better place. People don't have jobs."
Country artist Jason Michael Carroll provided entertainment before several local and state political candidates and incumbents spoke of the importance of electing Romney on Nov. 6.
"Having the title 'president' does not make you a leader," said Attorney General Pam Bondi. "Leadership is defined by acting honestly and honorably."
Others spoke of unfulfilled promises Obama made in 2008.
As rally-goers lined up to enter the event area, they were confronted by protesters shouting anti-Republican Party messages. Police officers monitored traffic and divided the crowds, who occasionally bantered back and forth.
"Shame on you women, shame on you," yelled Gail Pontuto at women in line to go see Romney speak.
"These women ought to know better," she said, adding that under a Romney administration women's rights would be challenged.
"Hang your heads," the Venice resident repeatedly shouted.
Some Romney supporters yelled back at protesters.
"Get a job," "USA, USA," they said.
"That's the American way," observed Lorie MacDonald, of Sarasota, while walking through the long line to see Romney. "We are rallying, they're protesting our candidate has a better way of getting the economy moving."
Romney addressed the five areas he plans to improve if elected: energy, trade, skill development for current workers and young people, balancing the budget and small business support.
"Jobs are my priority," he said.
Romney also noted Obama's comments about being unable to change Washington from within. He said the president had raised the white flag several times.
"I can change Washington and I will do it from the inside," he said.
Romney wants to restore commitment to life and liberty, he said, recognizing those who served or are currently enlisted in the military as "America's best."
"Our economy is driven by freedom, not by government," Romney said.
Obama has allocated $716 billion from Medicare to "Obamacare" and $1.4 billion from Sarasota County alone, Romney said.
"What he has done to Medicare to pay for Obamacare is wrong," he added.
Obama believes in redistribution of wealth, but that's "a foreign concept" which has "never been part of the American experience," Romney said.
Pat Smith, of Bradenton, protested with a sign reading "Obama for 100% of Americans." Another of her signs suggested: "Listen to the 99%, tax the 1%."
"Romney and Ryan scare the living lights out of me," Smith said. "They are so far right."
A plane flew overhead carrying a banner asking, "Romney, see any 47% victims at the Ritz?" A giant-sized Mitt Romney puppet deeming him "King of the 1%", which appeared at Republican National Convention protests, was operated by demonstrators.
Prior to the Ringling rally, about 200 people attended a fundraiser event at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, just a few minutes away. The minimum contribution was $2,500 per person and one of the hosts estimated that several million dollars would be raised.
"It's not every day you get the potential next president of the United States in your hometown," Gruters said before the fundraiser.
George Palermo and his wife, Lori, supported the Republican Party's presidential candidate at the fundraiser.
"I don't think we can live through four more years of Obama," George Palermo, of Myakka City, said.
This was Romney's first stop in Sarasota since he accepted the presidential nomination, said Kathleen King, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Manatee County and secretary of the Republican Party of Florida.
"It speaks to the significance of Florida and how Florida is a key battleground state on the road to the White House," she said.
"To win Florida you need to win the I-4 corridor which includes Manatee and Sarasota."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crimer reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHCrime. Miriam Valverde, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamValverde.