MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Mitt Romney who campaigned across New Hampshire the past few days entered the workforce “at the bottom,” feared getting “a pink slip,” doesn’t own four houses (although he thinks “that’s a good idea”) and “never imagined” he would run for office because, as he put it, “I was just a high school kid like everybody else with skinny legs.”
There’s nothing wholly false about the ways Romney has been describing himself. But the descriptions don’t ring true, either.
As Romney heads to South Carolina hoping to polish off his rivals after Tuesday’s primary victory, there may be lasting damage from his week of campaigning in New Hampshire. In trying to correct a weakness — some critics have called it inauthenticity — Romney may have only amplified it.
By Monday, the candidate himself seemed to have realized as much.
“If you think I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people, as opposed to saying my own experience and telling my own experience, that would make me a very different person than I am,” Romney told reporters at a sometimes testy news conference. “I’m going to tell people my own experiences in life, and I realize they’re not the same as everyone else I speak with, but I’m going to tell you about myself and if people like that, great.”
The Mitt Romney Americans have come to know through his five-year quest for the presidency was the miracle baby of an auto industry titan who went from a private boys preparatory school in a tony Detroit suburb to Harvard Business School. The country’s best consulting firms fought to hire him, and within a few short years he was the one doing the hiring.
Just a couple of years ago, Romney did own four houses, but after the 2008 election he downsized to three, including a San Diego beach house he is planning to more than double. In December, he was shopping with his wife, Ann, who told reporters that her favorite Christmas present from her husband was a horse.
America knows Romney not as an aw-shucks, reluctant citizen-politician but as a conscientious scion who worshiped his father, George, the three-term Michigan governor and onetime presidential candidate who long ago groomed young Mitt for high office. “He was teaching me how to get out there,” Romney told Time in 2007.
Around the edges in New Hampshire this past week, the former Massachusetts governor tried to convey everyman sensibilities and experiences. But to voters who already had judged Romney a slippery, stiff and distant politician, the reality he tried to create here didn’t seem real.
“I’ve been aware of Romney for a lot of years,” said Alan Riley, 60, a retired systems support engineer from Goffstown, N.H., who voted for former U.S. senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. “You sometimes wondered when he was governor, who died and made him king? And he didn’t think he was a king. He thought he was God.”
Patricia Ryan, 64, a retired teacher here, said she was a Democrat but deeply disappointed in President Obama and open to supporting a Republican. Of Romney, she said: “He’s okay. I’m not afraid of him like I am some Republicans. But I think he’s so rich he has no idea what it means to work hard and support yourself.”
Romney’s remarks Sunday — “I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired; there were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip” — distracted from his campaign’s message about fixing the economy. This could follow him to South Carolina, which hosts the next primary, on Jan. 21, and where he is not the overwhelming favorite that he was in New Hampshire. Opponents have seized on the “pink slip” comment to portray Romney as a corporate predator. But Romney’s aides point to his strong victory in New Hampshire as evidence that his comments this past week do not undermine his standing with voters.
Romney seems at his most uncomfortable when he’s talking about himself, and he does not easily reveal details about his life.
At times, Romney has exaggerated. In 2007, he said during a New Hampshire campaign stop: “I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life.” But, as his spokesman later clarified, Romney had hunted only twice: for rabbits in Idaho with some cousins when he was a teenager and for quail with Republican donors at a Georgia game preserve in 2006.
Aubrey Immelman, director of the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at St. John’s University in Minnesota, said Romney may be overcompensating for his inability to connect with regular people.
“Romney is neither an introvert nor an extrovert,” said Immelman, who has done personality studies of elected leaders including former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “The key is in his conscientiousness. . . . People that are highly conscientious are just not good campaigners. He might be a good executive — and he may end up being a fine president — but campaigning is his Achilles’ heel.”
Romney’s main line of attack against his chief opponents — Santorum, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — is that they are all “career politicians.” Romney often tells audiences: “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a very different background than I have.”
“I only spent four years in government. I didn’t inhale,” Romney often jokes. “I’m still a business guy.”
Romney likes to tell audiences that his wife made him run, that she feared the nation’s rising debt and sputtering economy and believed he was the only person who could turn it all around. Never mind that he published a campaign book, “No Apology,” in 2010, and spent the years after his 2008 loss traveling the country helping Republicans and, in turn, collecting political IOUs.
“Why in the world am I in this?” Romney asked at a spaghetti dinner last week in Tilton, N.H. “I turned to Ann and I said, ‘You know, you pushed me to get in this again.’ And she said, ‘You’re right!’ ”
Two days later, at a rally inside the ornate opera house in Rochester, N.H., Romney said: “This chance to run for president of the United States, I never imagined I’d do it. This is just a very strange and unusual thing to be in the middle of.
“I was just a high school kid like everybody else with skinny legs,” Romney added. “And, you know, I imagined that I’d be, you know, in business all my career. And somehow I backed into the chance to do this.”
Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Sandhya Somashekhar in New Hampshire contributed to this report.
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