By ASHLEY PARKER and MICHAEL BARBARO
|"It sucks to be Mitt Romney's chair bitch," |
said the original caption to this picture.
Poor guy looks a little worried he might get fired.
When making small talk with locals, he peppers the conversation with curious details. (“We stayed in the Courtyard hotel last night,” he told a woman at a diner. “It’s a LEED-certified hotel.”)
And when he encounters a question he particularly dislikes, he smiles politely and behaves as if it never happened. (“Will you put Ron Paul in your cabinet?” a man asked. The candidate turned away, inquiry left unanswered.)
Mr. Romney’s bid for president this year is a carefully crafted do-over, a chance to revise and retool a campaign that quickly fizzled out four years ago. He has lost the tie, overhauled his stump speech and hired far fewer campaign consultants.
But perhaps the trickiest part of this reinvention is changing who Mr. Romney is when he steps out from behind the lectern and wades into a roomful of voters: a cautious chief executive who is uneasy with off-the-cuff remarks, unnatural at chitchat and spare with his emotions.
At coffee shops and veterans’ halls, on sidewalks and factory tours, the reworked version, it turns out, is not all that different from the original.
A close-up study of Mr. Romney’s casual interactions with voters captures a candidate who can be efficient, funny and self-deprecating, yet often strains to connect in a personal way.
Even those who praise his style after meeting him sometimes do so in ways that feel backhanded: “I don’t mind stiff and formal,” said Holly Sirois, who spoke to Mr. Romney a few days ago at a pizza shop in Newport, N.H. “I don’t want the guy sitting in the backyard drinking beers with his buddies. I want my president to act presidential.”
Mr. Romney has plenty of moments when he wins positive reactions and some when he seems to make a genuine link, undercutting his caricature as robotic. And he is hardly giving up on mastering the art of the soft sell: he personally insisted on spending more hours talking to voters this election and fewer sequestered in his Boston headquarters. The calculation may prove crucial in a year when a procession of rivals — Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich — has roused the Republican base with colorful personalities and dynamic speaking styles.
The informal, humanizing interactions are so essential to the campaign’s image that Mr. Romney has scheduled back-to-back bus tours in New Hampshire and Iowa, the latest of which began here in Davenport on Tuesday, crammed with events like Coffee with Mitt, Pizza with Mitt and Spaghetti with Mitt.
“No one is an expert at it when they first do it,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney, who has watched him ring hundreds of doorbells over the years. “There has been an improvement over time, just as you would expect.”
Here is a guide to Mr. Romney’s habits and quirks on the campaign trail:
For a candidate who is exceedingly risk-averse, Mr. Romney has developed an unlikely penchant for trying to puzzle out everything from voters’ personal relationships to their ancestral homelands.
“Sisters?” he asked. (Nope, stepmother and stepdaughter.) “Your husband?” he wondered. (No, just a friend from the neighborhood.) “Mother and daughter?” he guessed. (Cousins, actually.)
The results can be awkward. “Daughter?” he asked a woman sitting with a man and two younger girls at the diner in Tilton, N.H., on Friday morning. Her face turned a shade of red. “Wife.”
Oh, Mr. Romney said. “It was a compliment, I guess,” said the woman, Janelle Batchelder, 31. “At the same time, it was possibly an insult.”
Countries of origin are another Romney favorite. When a man in Bethlehem, N.H., stood and introduced himself as Randall Loiacono, Mr. Romney asked, “Now, is that a Northern European name?”
“Sicilian,” Mr. Loiacono said, before standing and spelling his name at Mr. Romney’s request.
Mr. Romney relishes meeting young voters and rarely misses an opportunity to guess their age.
“What are you, about 9, 10?” Mr. Romney asked a young boy, shaking his gloved hand in a parking lot in Lancaster, N.H. “Seven,” the boy’s mom said.
When another boy corrected Mr. Romney a few campaign stops later (he was 12, not 14), his aides burst into laughter at the familiar mistake. Mr. Fehrnstrom called his boss’s frequent questions “an icebreaker.”
“It’s better than going around and trying to guess people’s weight,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “It’s safe.”
Mr. Romney likes to congratulate people. For what, exactly, is not always clear.
“Congratulations,” he told a grandmother at an event on Thursday night, presumably because she had a large brood.
Over three consecutive days last week, he congratulated a girl who said she was attending college, a woman who said she owned a small business and a mother who said she was going back to school. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed upon learning that a woman had three children.
Every candidate has default greetings, of course, standard lines that can be trotted out almost mindlessly, day after day, hour after hour, room after room.
“Good to see you,” Mr. Romney says.
“Hey, buddy, how are you?”
“Thanks for being here.”
Sometimes, when a voter brandishes a camera, his greetings become more elaborate: “Hi, there. You know how to make that work? Ha-ha.”
Mr. Romney, never much of a hugger or backslapper, stands with his hands straight down at his waist, tilting forward ever so slightly and turning from side to side as he searches for the next hand to shake or poster to sign.
In Bedford, N.H., he turned to find a man who proudly told him, “You already have my vote.” It was the kind of comment that might normally elicit an expression of gratitude, or an inquiry into the voter’s background.
Mr. Romney replied, “Well, that’s good.”
Dodging the Question
Few candidates are as deft as Mr. Romney at genially brushing off unwelcome queries and comments.
In Bedford, N.H., a woman walked up to him after a speech and declared: “I have a lot friends who say you are the robotic type. And I am like, no, you need to stay that way because you are a leader.”
Mr. Romney’s mouth arched into a somewhat pained smile as he rushed to conclude the conversation. “Nice to see you guys,” he said as he walked away.
A few moments later, a voter named David Rivers asked Mr. Romney whether there would be place for Mr. Paul, a Texas congressman, in a Romney White House. Mr. Romney treated the question as a joke, letting out a laugh and walking on by.
“I was actually kind of serious,” Mr. Rivers said in an interview afterward.
Sometimes Mr. Romney will engage in a back-and-forth with tough questioners; in Concord, N.H., a woman told him that she favored socialized medicine. “I’ve got someone for you,” Mr. Romney said. “His name is Barack Obama. He agrees with you. Ha-ha.”
Finding a Connection
Mr. Romney’s fascination with arcane, technical information can occasionally leave voters scratching their heads.
When he mentioned his hotel’s LEED designation — an imprimatur of energy efficiency — to the woman in Keene, N.H., she acknowledged that she had no idea what it meant. “Is it something to do with being green?” she asked after he had moved on.
But his inner wonk has at times endeared him to potential supporters, as it did at a farm supply store in Lancaster, when Mr. Romney began discussing the intricacies of cow milk with Jessica Hebert, an Obama voter who was at the store.
Mr. Romney delved deeply into the topic, with real curiosity and a barrage of questions, after Ms. Hebert, who has shown dairy cows, explained that a prize animal produced about 100 pounds of milk a day. He began a series of rapid-fire calculations to determine how many gallons are in a pound: “Eight-point-three pounds per gallon. So 8 into 100 is going to be about 13, 14, gallons. Oh, 12 — there you go.”
He beamed with satisfaction at solving the puzzle — and Ms. Hebert said she liked what she had heard.
“That is a lot of milk,” Mr. Romney said.