Four years ago, the five Romney sons were a staple on the campaign trail, their heavy brows, square jaws and penchant for corny jokes coming together in a sort of cubist portrait of their father.
This time around, Mitt Romney’s kids have been more scarce, but four of them made a rare joint appearance in New Hampshire last week. Mingling with supporters over pizza and sticky buns, they offered a few mild jabs at their father but spent most of their time lavishing the kind of praise on him that many parents would envy.
“My dad is my hero,” son Josh Romney, 36, a Salt Lake City real estate investor, told supporters at a cafe here on a recent morning. “He’s taught me everything I know about being a father, about loving this country and about raising a family, so for me to be able to be on the campaign trail and talk about him and share stories about my dad to other people is a thrill.”
In many ways, they are the ideal surrogates to hold down the fort in New Hampshire, one of Romney’s strongholds, while the GOP presidential candidate focuses his efforts on Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses. They are clean-cut and attractive, conversant about taxes and foreign policy, at ease in the media spotlight and full of darling tales about growing up with their energetic father.
But they have done little to dispel the impression that Romney is a little too polished and aristocratic. Three of the five attended Harvard Business School, like their father, and showed up wearing versions of Romney’s jeans-and-blazer campaign trail uniform. Matt and Craig Romney work in real estate. Ben Romney, who was absent, is completing his medical residency in Utah.
The brothers, who range in age from 31 to 41 and together have 16 children among them, say they have largely stayed away this year at the request of their father, who did not want them to uproot their lives once more, considering their work and parental responsibilities. But they say they will likely step up their activity as the primaries approach, and supporters say that is exactly what they’d like to see.
“It shows what a strong candidate he is that the boys are out here for him while he’s out there in Iowa,” said Pam Skinner, a local Romney activist. “Of course, it helps to have a big family.”
Within the Republican field, Romney’s family is hardly the largest. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Rick Santorum each have seven children, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) famously raised five children and fostered 23.
Nor is the Romney family the most visible. That distinction probably belongs to the self-described “Huntsman girls,” who grabbed attention with their quirky Web videos about Huntsman’s rivals and irreverent tweets. (They lamented last month that tweets directed to the Romney brothers go unreturned.)
But Romney’s sons are a potent force for a candidate who has struggled to connect personally with voters. Along with their mother, Ann, Romney’s wife of 42 years, they provide a stark contrast to rival Newt Gingrich, who has been married three times. And they would help level the playing field in a general election, presenting a wholesome image to rival that of President Obama.
Tagg Romney, the eldest and a venture capitalist, sits in on strategy sessions, and Josh, the middle son, goes out on the trail about once a week. But it is a smaller role than last time, when Tagg quit his job with the Los Angeles Dodgers to work full-time with the campaign and Craig, the youngest Romney son, took his toddler son to 35 states. Gone, too, is the blog, “Five Brothers,” which inspired some mocking for its wholesome banter.
During their campaign swing through New Hampshire, the brothers kept it light with the occasional policy answer or flubbed attempt at humor — for example, when Matt, 40, the second son, made a joke about Obama’s birth certificate. “Repeated a dumb joke,” he later tweeted. “My bad.”
They made a few cracks about their father but never at his expense. About his habit of planning out every moment of their vacations, when the boys wanted to laze around on the beach. About his stinginess, which “Congress is going to learn pretty quickly.” About how, as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics organizing committee, he learned how to ride a skeleton sled just to get on NBC’s “Today.”
They told of his devotion to God and family, about the meandering Sunday conversations that invariably center on the grandchildren. And about their shock, as teenagers, to learn that “the dad that we liked to tease” was so well respected at his venture capital firm, Bain Capital.
Matt said it was a misconception that his father is stiff and formal. “I can see how people might get that impression,” he said in an interview. “He knows that people have that impression of him. We tell him to act differently, and he’s like, ‘Look, I’m on a news program or I’m at a debate. I’m acting responsibly for that setting.’ But if you get to see him in other settings like we get to see him, he’s the most fun guy out there.”
Asked about the brothers’ relative comfort speaking publicly for their father, he said it was largely a function of their earnestness.
“We’re all still kind of nervous talking about this stuff with folks. Having done it before helps a lot,” Matt said. “The one thing that really helps is if you’re sincere, and we are sincere about my dad and what he’s done.”