By Justin Sink - 06/01/12 10:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney's campaign has launched a push to humanize its candidate ahead of the general election.
Voters have learned that Romney and his wife, Ann, sometimes quarrel — even about politics — but never slam doors or yell.
They were told that when Ann was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his five sons realized their father might have been more frightened than their mother.
Each of these moments — which offer small insights into the different dimensions of the Republican presidential nominee — have been gradually doled out in recent weeks.
Among the efforts: an interview series airing this week on Fox News that shows the Romneys at a bucolic ranch discussing their marriage and family life, a new Web ad featuring the Romney family discussing Ann's struggle with MS and a Time magazine piece earlier this month wherein Romney is profiled as learning resiliency and ambition from his politically active parents.
“The American people haven't had a chance to get to know Gov. and Mrs. Romney,” said campaign spokesman Rick Gorka. “The interviews are one of the ways to provide a look into who they are, and the governor's family is one of the most important things to him.”
The reintroduction is crucial for a man auditioning to be the person invited into Americans' living rooms every night for the next four years.
While voters are disappointed in President Obama's handling of the economy, they continue to view him as more likable and personable. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday showed Romney still trailing by double digits on the question of "likability" even after the bump he earned from clinching the GOP nomination.
“Saturday Night Live” regularly lampoons Romney as robotic, and an Internet video from “Inside the Actors Studio” host James Lipton advising the former governor “how to act human” went viral earlier this month.
“Save only Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, President Obama is the best politician on the stump — he's a fantastic campaigner who connects well with voters,” said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. “But what Mitt Romney can do is cut into that, showing he has overcome hurdles himself, and show within his family things that a lot of people can relate to. He doesn’t have to be more popular, but he does have to cut into that gap.”
It’s a high-wire act for Romney, who has struggled at times to demonstrate what aides insist is a genuine connection to the daily lives of everyday Americans.
While President Obama might get knocked on the right for filling out his NCAA bracket or singing Al Green a cappella, moments like that can help connect him to voters.
Stories revealing childhood love letters or drug use might be embarrassing, but when first lady Michelle Obama can convincingly explain to a late-night comedian that the president matured greatly after losing his father, those stories become a potent way to relate to the struggles and growth of everyday people.
Alternatively, when Romney’s childhood bullying of a gay student at his boarding school was revealed, the candidate turned defensive, insisting he was unaware of the boy’s sexuality while admitting to having done some “dumb things” in high school. The moment was emblematic of a candidate perpetually concerned about a gaffe or offending a constituency playing too conservative with what could have been a more humanizing moment.
The degree of difficulty intensifies because the most compelling aspects of Romney's personal life — his charity work, his counseling, instances of community outreach — are inextricably tied to his Mormon faith and work in the church. While his campaign insists Romney is willing to discuss his faith, his answer to a question during a Fox News interview this week about whether he would do more to highlight his religious beliefs was indicative of the caution he’s taken.
“Well, I give major speeches on topics of significance and have about once a week or once every two weeks for the last couple of months, and will continue doing so as regards religion in America. I gave a speech on that topic in my last campaign at the George Herbert Walker Bush Library. I don't know that I would add to that or change it in some way,” Romney said.
Still, many elements of Romney’s biography are compelling, and if he can figure out a way to discuss those details with warmth and perceived sincerity, he could do major damage to President Obama’s key advantage headed into the fall.
“There’s a lot of things the governor is very proud of, including his family, and he’s going to provide a look into who they are,” Gorka said.
Figuring out the calculus of likability will also be key to forwarding Romney’s messaging casting the former Massachusetts governor as an economic repairman. Since a struggling economy is increasingly encroaching on the personal lives of Americans, Romney might be able to recast his stiffness as professionalism if he seems more sincere and compelling on those issues.
Crafted perfectly, Romney's awkward business jargon and conservativeness can become endearing manifestations of his economic aptitude. But if he’s unable to grasp that mantle, they represent an elitism and distance that will bruise his chances.
“If he can solidify himself as a turnaround artist that is adept at cleaning up messes, it all becomes a lot easier,” O’Connell said.