At a waterfront park in downtown St. Petersburg, a crowd of more than 5,500 stood rapt listening to him speak, many with tears welling in their eyes. “Ohhhhh,” they gasped. And with that, the Romney campaign’s all-out effort to reveal the nominee’s character and compassion received a boost: A politician with an aversion to telling personal stories was, at long last, telling them.
“I’ve seen America,” Romney said. “I’ve seen the greatness of the human spirit in my fellow Americans. It’s what gives me confidence in our future, knowing we can rise to the occasion, time and again. I’ve seen it throughout my life.”
Romney’s friends and advisers — as well as his wife, Ann — have long voiced frustration that tales of his charitable deeds have not blossomed into a gentler portrait. The nominee instead has been shackled by a caricature of a stilted, emotionally distant and out-of-touch multimillionaire who lacks the kind of humanity and verve that Americans have come to expect from their presidents. Romney’s likability deficit with President Obama is perhaps his greatest liability.
The candidate, advisers said, has long considered talk of his good deeds for political gain unseemly and instead focused his message on his managerial competency and economic prescriptions — which is why Friday night’s rally in St. Petersburg marked an evolution.
Earlier in the day, as they traveled aboard the campaign bus in Florida, Romney told his chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, he was ready to get personal. He was feeling confident coming off his performance in the debate and was reunited here with Ann after a couple days apart. In her brief remarks introducing Romney, she seemed to signal what was to come.
“I was so thrilled at the debate for people to see my husband unfiltered, without any negative ads, without any media trying to interpret what he says and what he feels in his heart,” Ann Romney said. “This is a man who cares about the American people. I’ve seen him throughout his life exhibit extraordinary compassion for others.”
Then, a little over 10 minutes into the candidate’s stump speech, Stevens told a reporter to listen carefully — that Romney’s next riff would be new and worth hearing.
Romney talked about his graduate school classmate Billy, who started a successful business but became quadriplegic after an accident. Billy then devoted himself to spinal injury research, Romney said. A few weeks ago, he came to a campaign event in Atlanta.