Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 14, 2011

Mitt Romney, the leading contender to become President Obama’s Republican opponent next year, had just finished working the room at Blake’s Creamery here when he paused for a photo with the restaurant’s owner, Ann Mirageas, and decided to tell her a joke.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“I saw the young man over there with eggs Benedict, with hollandaise sauce,” he said. “And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce in hubcaps. Because there’s no plates like chrome for the hollandaise.”

The proprietor laughed weakly. “Good luck to you,” Mirageas said.

The hubcap joke must have killed in Michigan in the 1950s, when Romney was a boy. What’s odd is that he’s still making such jokes. What’s odder is that a man who makes such jokes is in a position to become president of the United States.

In formal settings — news conferences, or Monday night’s debate — Romney is confident and competent. But in casual moments, such as Tuesday morning’s retail politics in New Hampshire, his weirdness comes through — equal parts “Leave It to Beaver” corniness and social awkwardness.

He greets a man perusing shelves of a hardware store: “Shopping here today?”

He notes the lack of “guy waitresses” at a diner and says of the long skirts worn by the middle-aged wait staff: “Oh, this is the Hooters equivalent.”

He talks about the weak economy with the proprietors of a feed shop, then abruptly pivots: “Okay, so what do you do about mosquito control? . . . This has been a mosquito-infested year with all the moisture. They flew away with my dog.”

At Mary Ann’s, a retro diner in Derry, N.H., the slogan on the owner’s shirt is “A blast from the past” — and the description suits Romney, too. He admires the Texaco “Fire Chief” gas pump and a jukebox (“You guys hear this music? ‘I want a caveman, I want a caveman.’ ”). Posing for a photo with his arms around the waitresses, he suddenly jumps forward, pretending somebody pinched his bottom. “Oh my goodness gracious!” he exclaims, then, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” He later says the gag is “kind of fun to do.”

That Romney can survive an awkward morning like this is another sign of the luck smiling on his second run for the White House. Everything seems to be coming together for him this time, though not because of any brilliant performance.

Conservatives panned his health-care speech. Rush Limbaugh proclaimed “bye-bye, nomination” after Romney said humans contribute to global warming. Yet Romney has wandered into the lead in the GOP race, and polls show he has pulled even with Obama, thanks to the grim economy. Against his Lilliputian 2012 rivals, he is a fundraising and polling giant.

This week is typical: Romney didn’t do much to distinguish himself in Monday’s debate, but he came away a winner because others did less. Then, the next morning, Romney was back to his strained common-man shtick. He wore black Gap jeans (even his pants size, 34 by 34, is perfectly square) and a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

His struggle to make chitchat with the diner patrons pleaded “regular guy” almost as much as his endorsement on the “Today” show of the “Twilight” vampire series. To a man wearing a “Joe Gauci Landscaping” T-shirt: “You do some landscaping work?” To two older women who just came from the gym: “Are your knees, hips doing okay?” To an old married couple: “You know each other?” Romney seemed to be auditing one man: “What’s happened to your financials the last couple of years?”

He departed Blake’s with a final plea for support in the New Hampshire primary, scheduled for Feb. 14. “Get out and vote,” he encouraged the diners. “It’s a while, though, I think. What is it, November? . . . It’s not November. It’s January. It’s February!”

Later, at Derry Feed & Supply, Romney stood next to a display of hermit crabs and attempted regular-guy talk with the proprietors but kept inserting exotic phrases such as “we aimed our barbs, if you will, at the president” and “it’s the agonizing reappraisal.”

And yet, it’s working for Romney. “It’s a lot different from how it was” in ’08, Romney remarked as he strolled down Derry’s main street, trailed by 40 journalists. “Then, it was, ‘Who the heck are you?’ I like this a lot better.”

Except for the mosquitoes flying away with his dog. Oh, my goodness gracious! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

danamilbank@washpost.com