Gov. Mitt Romney poses for pictures with families at Farm Boys, Saturday May, 21, 2011 in Chapin, S.C. (Mary Ann Chastain/AP)

The opportunity was teed up perfectly.

Midway through Mitt Romney’s town hall meeting here Thursday, a young man contrasted the former Massachusetts governor with the other Republican presidential candidates, who he said focus on “the vitriol, the hyperbole.”

“We have a candidate who once thought the greatest problem plaguing the nation’s schools was the movie ‘Aladdin,’ ” the voter said. “We have another candidate, who the only thing he has to offer is a $9.99 pizza deal — I mean tax plan — and we have a candidate whose only claim to fame was that he shot a coyote as governor.”

Would Romney, he wanted to know, “finally give the people of Iowa an alternative to that?”

This was Romney’s moment to make the case that he is the substantive one, the electable one, to tell Republican voters that Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain and Rick Perry may be the candidates they love but that Mitt Romney is the president they need. And that that is why they should love him, too.

But Romney didn’t. Instead, he queued up his talking points — that he will be back again, hopes to win here, but will campaign everywhere. He quickly turned to a stump-speech standby, about how Obama once said he would be looking at a one-term proposition if he couldn’t fix the economy. “I’m here to collect,” Romney said.

The crowd laughed, as his crowds do every time he delivers that line, and Romney stood holding the microphone at his waist, his left hand in his pocket, smiling his porcelain-perfect smile.

The Iowa caucuses that kick off the nominating contest are in 11 weeks. And Romney, with the prize closer than ever before in the five years he has been seeking the White House, is racing to make the sale — to expand his support beyond the 20-odd percent he has held in the polls all year.

Ever since he stepped onto the national stage, Romney has been criticized as being unable to connect with voters — partly because of past positions out of step with many in his party and partly because of what some say is a wooden, detached personality. Although he has sharpened his campaign operation and mostly aced a series of debates this year, Romney’s trip to Iowa on Thursday and recent swings through New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida reveal a candidate still struggling to make that connection.

When voters exposed themselves emotionally, Romney offered little empathy. When they sought his support for their causes, Romney didn’t show them that he cared. Romney was scripted when he could have been spontaneous. He was boardroom cool when he could have been living room warm.

It’s not for lack of trying. Romney lets his hair breathe, goes tie-less and travels with a slimmed-down entourage. He deploys his wife, Ann, to share stories about Mitt the husband and Mitt the father. He campaigns less as someone looking to fulfill his personal ambition than as a turnaround specialist whose skills are needed for the nation. “I am not in this race for me,” he says.

“He’s doing a better job of trying to be more engaging, if you will,” said Brent Siegrist, a former Iowa House speaker who endorsed Romney in 2008 and plans to do so again. But, he said, Romney still has weaknesses. “He’s almost too perfect — too good-looking, too successful — that’s just what it feels like. It’s almost like he’s Robert Redford in ‘The Candidate.’ ”

Steve Bennett, 59, of Jefferson, Iowa, has sized up several candidates this year. Of Romney, he said recently: “Whenever he’s speaking, there always seems to be that look of doubt in his eyes. He’s fidgety. He looks like he wants it too bad. There’s just something about Mitt that’s lacking. He can’t finish the deal. It’s that simple.”

Empathy has never been Romney’s strong suit. Although he has been a consistent front-runner in Washington Post-ABC polling this year, he hasn’t stood out as the Republican candidate who best understands people’s problems.

In Iowa, Romney tried to connect with passionate appeals to patriotism and lines likening his 59-step economic plan to an Alcoholics Anonymous program. But everywhere he went, he saw old supporters, rarely new ones. And even the old ones made him a bit suspicious.

“I know there are friends in the audience — I see some Romney stickers on,” he said at the town hall meeting, looking out at about 150 Iowans. “Although I’ve learned that sometimes those are just camouflage.”

Not quite at home

In Iowa, Romney never quite seemed at home. He swooped into Sioux City late Wednesday. Early the next morning, at a highway hotel, he went downstairs for breakfast, upbeat and confident. He had just read on the Drudge Report that Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi had been killed.

“We got him!” he said triumphantly to a trio of reporters. He ordered a waffle and fixed himself a bowl of honeydew melon.

But before his waffle was ready, Romney was whisked out the door. He was running late, wheeling his suitcase into the parking lot. On this cold and crisp Iowa morning, even his Ford Expedition was out of place: It had South Dakota license plates.

Romney was off to the town hall meeting at Morningside College, where the disciplined candidate plowed through seven questions — some of them tough, including one asking him to reveal his weaknesses.

“One of the things my party needs to do better, and I’m sure I need to do better as well — something I learned from my first campaign — is to make sure we communicate our message clearly. Gosh darn it, we don’t do a good job of that,” he said, adding: “Come on, Mitt. Come on, Republicans. Do a better job communicating.”

Romney, as he often is, was his most animated talking about patriotism.

“I love this country,” he said. “I love America. We’re a unique nation. We’re an exceptional nation. I love this country. I love the principles upon which it was founded. I believe in America. I believe in free enterprise. I believe in freedom. I believe in opportunity. I love America. I believe that we have a role to pass to the next generation an America that’s strong and free. And I’m not going to die without doing everything in my power to fulfill that responsibility.”

People in the audience nodded their heads with his exclamations. But when Romney reached his rhetorical crescendo, there was no applause.

In his element

As Romney departed Sioux City, he rolled south through the yellows and browns of the heartland’s autumn harvest. From the back seat of his SUV, he called his new surrogate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and one he would like to enlist someday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

One hundred fifteen miles later, Romney pulled into Treynor for a quick lunch at the Pickle Barrel Market. He usually doesn’t drink soda (he’s a Mormon, and his church advises against the use of caffeine), but he allowed himself a Diet Pepsi. He bought a plate of fried chicken, corn and baked beans — a meal that, when chatting with the owner, he referred to as a “product.”

Romney sat around a dinette table with Mike Guttau, the chairman of Treynor State Bank, who put on his finest suit and cuff links for the occasion. They chatted businessman to businessman — about the bank’s finances, its employees, the real estate market.

Then Guttau walked Romney to the bank, where the guests Romney’s campaign had invited to his next event — a Romney staple: the economic roundtable — were waiting in position.

On the way in, Romney made small talk with the bank employees, greeting each by reading his or her name tag: “Twenty-five years of service! Roberta, nice to meet you.”

Romney skipped down a flight of stairs to a basement boardroom and settled into a burgundy leather executive chair at the head of the table, flanked by 14 locals representing what Romney calls “the real economy” — lawyers, doctors and corn growers.

“There’s a good shot I might become the next president of the United States. It’s not a sure thing but a good shot,” he said, proceeding to pepper his guests with industry questions.

First up was Janell Cheek of Nishnabotna Valley Rural Electric Co-op.

“Does coal come in by rail from Pennsylvania?”

“High-sulfur, low-sulfur content in the coal that you get?”

“Do you have a trade system for SOx and NOx?” — the acronyms for nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide.

At that, Romney’s press secretary, Andrea Saul, leaned in to whisper that she thought the exchange showed the governor’s deep knowledge of the issues.

And on this day, with this crowd, it worked. This was how Romney connected.

“I always had viewed him as a very stiff, pretty impersonal candidate. But I will tell you, I’m impressed,” said a roundtable guest, Lori Holste, 52, who works in economic development. “He had a lot of the right answers we’re looking for. There was a lot of eye contact. . . . He spoke to us by speaking our names. I felt like I was on the same level as him.”

Getting personal

Earlier this month, Romney held a town hall meeting in Hopkinton, N.H. — literally in the Town Hall, an old white building on a leafy narrow street that looked like a postcard. A few questions into the event, a young lady objected to Romney’s earlier comment that children should be raised by a mother and father. Romney was making a point about his support of traditional families and his opposition to same-sex marriage, but she took it personally. She had been raised by her mother and grandmother.

Another politician might have shown a little empathy. Or praised her for dealing with difficulty. Or remarked on what an exceptional mother and grandmother she must have.

Romney stuck to his talking point.

“Look,” he said, “there are a lot of folks who’ve been raised by one parent — through divorce, death or through a parent having a child out of wedlock. But in my view, a society recognizes that the ideal setting for raising a child is when you have the benefit of two people working together and where one is male and one is female.”

Romney doesn’t miss opportunities to try to establish bonds in more casual interactions.

After one of his Iowa stops, a woman dropped her keys and glasses while shaking his hand. “You need a purse,” Romney told her.

Then her camera fell. Romney tried to help her. “Let’s put your batteries in here. You’ve got to get them in the right order or the pictures will be upside down,” he said, chuckling.

At the same event, a man nursing a fruit smoothie told Romney that it was giving him a headache. “This does or the Vernors does? Vernors makes you sneeze,” Romney said, apparently referring to the Boston Cooler, an old-fashioned shake that originated in Romney’s birthplace of Detroit and is made with Vernors ginger ale and vanilla ice cream.

The man, looking puzzled, laughed politely, sipped his smoothie, turned and walked away.

Polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.