MADISON, N.H. — Mitt Romney has a message for anyone who thinks he doesn’t understand ordinary people: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
And he’s been trying to show his everyman credentials on the campaign trail in the past few days. He’s been talking about living modestly as a missionary with a makeshift toilet he calls “a bucket affair” and about his years counseling people in his church when they were down on their luck, depressed or struggling to keep their marriages intact.
Romney even told the story of his son, Josh, escaping punishment when his father grabbed him by the arm to order him to his bedroom. Josh, at the ripe age of 4, would simply drop his voice two octaves and say, “Don’t hurt froggy.” Instead of disciplining the boy, Romney told supporters in Iowa over the weekend, he would bust up laughing.
Romney is trying to show his softer side. He has been campaigning more frequently with his wife, Ann, and their family. He is talking more openly about his Mormon faith and his experiences in church and at home to root himself in everyday American life.
His attempts to project compassion come as his political opponents are questioning whether a man who made millions in private equity can relate to the daily struggles of regular Americans. They have seized upon an exchange in Saturday’s debate, when Romney offered to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 to settle a dispute.
“When people say, ‘Oh, you care about business; you don’t care about people,’ nothing could be further from the truth,” Romney told a warehouse full of lumberjacks at a mill here on Monday. “I care about business because I do care about people.”
Sporting a barn jacket and standing amid wood chips and heavy machinery, Romney said he wants businesses to be successful so they can hire more people, pay them more and give them more health-care benefits. “I love the American people,” he said. “I want ‘em to be well and I know that a strong and vibrant economy that creates jobs is one of the best things I can do for people I care for deeply.”
At the lumber yard, Romney echoed his comments in Saturday’s debate about his decade as a lay pastor in his Mormon congregation. He said he counseled people with marital problems, delinquent children and especially, those with financial difficulties. The former Massachusetts governor connected their struggles to the economy, which has been his overriding campaign theme.“We’re all the same in the things that we aspire for, the things we love, our families, our faith, our country — people are patriotic, rich or poor,” Romney said. When people are out of work, he added, “overwhelmingly it’s the fault of our economy.”
The day before, at a town-hall meeting in Hudson, N.H., Romney reflected on his time in France as a young missionary in the 1960s. (“You’ve seen these Mormon missionaries that drive around in their bicycles with little tags on their shirts,” he said by way of introduction.)
Romney said he lived on a monthly budget of $100 from his savings. His apartments didn’t have showers or refrigerators. Nor did they have modern toilets. “We had instead little pads on the ground,” he said. “Okay, you know how that works. There was a chain behind you with a bucket — it was a bucket affair.”
Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, said there’s no “conscious attempt” to humanize him. He said it is natural for any candidate to become particularly reflective amid such a long, grueling campaign.
Asked whether Romney’s television advertisement focusing on his 42-year marriage was strategic, Stevens said the ad was in response to attacks from Democrats that Romney had no core.
“It’s offensive,” Stevens said. “These are character attacks, and that’s how he responded, I think, in a very deeply personal way.”
Romney has been employing his wife and sons more frequently to introduce him at events, and a recent rally with Cuban-Americans in Miami, Romney invited his son, Craig, to address the crowd in Spanish. (Craig did his missionary service in Chile.)
On Friday, Ann Romney headlined a “Women for Mitt” house party in West Des Moines, Iowa, where she reportedly described her husband as “my most disobedient child.”
“The five boys — can you imagine at the dinner table — they never behaved, and Mitt was the worst of all,” she said, and added, “The quote that we kind of grew up with as a motto in our home was, ‘No other success can compensate for failure in the home.’ That was something that was reinforced by Mitt all the time, and he had that basic value from that early, early time in our marriage.”
Ann Romney did not mention Newt Gingrich, the thrice-married former House speaker who has surged into the front-runner position. But by highlighting their relatively stable family life, the Romneys are making a clear contrast with Gingrich.
“It’s good to remind Iowans of how strong he is from a family standpoint,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has not endorsed a candidate, said in a recent interview.“That is a squared-away all-American family.”