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HAMILTON – Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was in Hamilton on Wednesday night for a private fundraiser, drawing hundreds of supporters and dozens of protesters to the Daly Mansion grounds east of town.

It was the first time a major presidential candidate has visited the state this year.

Traffic slowed to a crawl on the Eastside Highway as Ravalli County sheriff’s deputies blocked the road to make way for Romney’s motorcade, which sped toward The Stock Farm after a 90-minute event at the mansion. Romney’s host, brokerage house founder Charles Schwab, has a home at the gated community outside Hamilton.

According to the Associated Press, Romney gave donors what has become his standard stump speech, receiving a much warmer reception than he did earlier in the day when he delivered similar remarks to an NAACP convention.

“When I mentioned I was going to get rid of Obamacare, they didn’t like that,” Romney told the crowd in Hamilton, talking about boos he received in Houston, Texas. “That is fine, I want people to know what I stand for. If they don’t want to cut Obamacare, then they have to give me something else to cut.”

Romney also promised his Montana supporters more energy development – to lower energy costs – and more international trade deals, to spur economic development. There were also plenty of crowd-pleasing jabs at President Barack Obama.

“He is out of ideas, and he is out of excuses and in November, we are going to get him out of office,” Romney said to applause. “The course I will set is dramatically different than the course he has set.”

Before and during the fundraiser, protesters lined the roadway leading to the main gates of the historic Bitterroot Valley mansion, carrying signs and shouting slogans at passing cars.

Joe Slemberger, the male services outreach educator for Planned Parenthood in Montana, organized a group of over a dozen protesters, all wearing pink.

“Basically we’re out here just to raise awareness that women’s health is extremely important, and Mitt Romney is not good for women’s health,” Slemberger said. “In fact, he’s bad for women’s health. He wants to restrict access to birth control. He wants to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood health services, and he wants to eliminate funding for programs that fund Title X. We just want to be out here to let people know and educate voters and just to raise awareness. Just so that people are educated, really.”

A few people stopped to honk in support of the protesters, and a few angrily shouted threats or turned their thumbs down.

The fundraiser was sponsored by Schwab, a part-time Stock Farm Club resident. The cost to attend the event was $2,500 per person, or $5,000 per person to attend and get a photo taken with Romney. Those who dined privately with the former Massachusetts governor paid $25,000 per person. The Romney campaign said 220 tickets were sold for the reception, which was closed to members of the local media. (While local media were told there would be no access to the event, the national reporters traveling with Romney were allowed inside; thus, the AP’s quotes from the event.)

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The tarmac at the Ravalli County airport was full of private jets and helicopters on Wednesday afternoon that flew in for the event.

Among the Montanans at the event were former Montana Republican governors Tim Babcock, Judy Martz and Marc Racicot; Montana GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill’s wife, Betty Hill, a national committeewoman for his campaign; Brent Musburger, an ABC/ESPN sportscaster; Brad Johnson, the party’s candidate for Montana secretary of state; and Tim Fox, the party’s candidate for attorney general.

“This is a record-setting political fundraiser in the state of Montana,” said Romney Montana finance chair Mark Baker, adding that “we’ve never been closer to the presidency.”

Steve Daines, who is the Republican candidate for Montana’s U.S. House seat, said, “This is the largest event ever in the history of Montana politics.”

Daines noted that the last time a presidential candidate was on the Daly Mansion grounds, “it was William Jennings Bryan in August of 1897.”

“We have a president today who has taken a bad situation and made it worse,” he said. “Mitt Romney has taken tough situations and made them much, much better.”

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The protesters arrived in small groups, and parked along the Eastside Highway.

Carol Miller of Hamilton brought her daughters to protest with her. Her 10-year-old daughter Caitlin held a sign that read “Not everyone in Montana has their head in an outhouse,” a reference to a Florence man’s anti-Obama outhouse that stirred controversy at the Corvallis Memorial Day parade and the state GOP convention.

“We’re protesting Mitt Romney’s agenda,” Miller said.

Obama has not campaigned in the state since 2008. The Democrat visited Montana several times then, including Missoula and Butte. However, Republican John McCain still won Montana’s electoral vote in 2008 without visiting the state.

“We are just thrilled and excited to have Mitt in Montana. He is obviously trying to let us know how important Montana is,” said Romney’s state political chairman, Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork. “We are really excited about it.”

Romney will be in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on Thursday for a similar fundraiser.

Associated Press reporter Matt Gouras contributed to this story.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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