Romney shows his softer side

A series of campaign appearances by Mitt Romney and his family appear designed to show the candidate in a softer light and counter one of President Obama’s strengths.

Romney has acknowledged Obama’s eloquence and likability on the campaign trail while the presumptive GOP nominee has struggled to make a similar connection with voters.

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In the past few weeks the campaign has ramped up efforts to change that, spanning from the simple — allowing reporters to film Romney and his wife Ann strolling the beach and eating ice cream — to the silly, with the couple's five sons going on Conan O'Brien's late night talk show to show a video of a prank they played on their father.

The goal seems to be to humanize a candidate the Romney campaign hopes Americans will invite into their home for the next four years.

"Subconsciously, people vote for people who like them," said Republican media strategist Chris Ingram. "The human component is critical even if you have a strong message on issues people care deeply about, like the economy. People might believe you entirely, but if they don't feel good about the candidate as an individual, the personality, then they're a bit reluctant."

The power of the personal is obvious to both campaigns. Earlier this week, first lady Michelle Obama used a fundraising email to offer supporters a personal glimpse into the Obamas’s lives.

"For the first 10 years of our marriage, Barack and I lived in an apartment in my hometown of Chicago. The winters there can be pretty harsh, but no matter how snowy or icy it got, Barack would head out into the cold — shovel in hand — to dig my car out before I went to work," the first lady wrote. "In all our years of marriage, he's always looked out for me."

Over Father's day weekend, the Obama campaign also released a web video where the first lady adoringly describes the time the president takes each day for his teenage daughters.

But for a Romney campaign that continues to trail the president in polls on likability — and whose singular focus on the economy doesn't immediately lend itself to improving likeability numbers — making an effort to portray the Romney family as familiar and friendly is important.

"Since 1980, nobody's won the presidency who isn't the more likable candidate," says Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "This is a push to make Romney, and by extension his family, more trustworthy and more palatable for voters. If a good day for Obama is when we're not talking about the economy, a good day for Romney is when we're talking about the economy but also his personal life."

Still, the Romney campaign isn't just working to make their candidate seem more appealing, they're working to address potential vulnerabilities in the minds of voters.

Just as Obama — a Harvard-educated former constitutional law professor — looks to shore up blue collar voters who might worry he's elitist by talking sports on ESPN and showing up at basketball games, Romney hopes by highlighting the loving bonds of his family and some of the everyday moments of campaign life, he can dispel concerns he's too robotic and wealthy to the point of being out of touch.

Bringing reporters along on a trip to Chipotle or having his sons reveal that he enjoys singing Roy Orbison songs combat that narrative.

Of course, there remains a certain level of danger in exposing more of the unscripted and personal side to a candidate, especially one hyperaware of the political process and still finding his footing on the campaign trail.

During a swing earlier this week through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Romney drew chortles from some in the press when discussing how touchscreen sandwich ordering machines at WaWa convenience stores served as an appropriate metaphor for the rapidly advancing technologies of the private sector. The Republican hopeful clearly meant to parlay a unique regional feature into his broader campaign theme heralding the importance of the private sector in driving the recovery.

But Romney repeatedly referred to the popular Mid-Atlantic chain as “Wawa’s” – adding a possessive “s” where it didn’t belong — and raised eyebrows among voters in the region that had been using the touchscreens for years.

The episode is a meaningless one in any reasonable analysis of policy, but in the perception game of presidential politics, episodes like that can add up. After all one of the most enduring images from Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential bid is when he ordered a Philly cheesesteak — with Swiss cheese.

Romney is still searching for how to strike the right balance of authenticity, accessibility, and personability.

“You can overdo it,” says Ingram. “There’s a certain level of believability, and voters are only going to accept so much. It’s like when the campaign tweeted a picture of what was apparently him doing laundry on the campaign trail with a box of Tide. He hardly has time to breathe, much less separate the darks from the whites.”

Still, when done correctly, glimpses into the Romney’s personal lives could pay enormous dividends for the campaign.

“It’s not unlike grassroots activism, when someone you know comes and asks you to support a candidate or an issue,” said O’Connell. “Voters can decide they might just like someone because they feel like they know them and know their family, and they seem like the neighbors next door.”