Gaffes, like Romney’s fear of getting fired, illuminate what the candidates think of themselves: Character Sketch

NASHUA, N.H.--Introducing himself as the father of seven children, Rick Santorum told a sparse crowd Monday morning, "We buy in bulk. We're Sam's Club and Costco folks." That is undoubtedly Santorum's self-image, forged as a self-made man in a Senate increasingly dominated by millionaires. But Santorum's financial disclosure tells a different story. He made $1.3 million in a 20-month period that ended last August. Many folks down at Sam's Club have never made $1.3 million in their lifetimes.

By the standards of politics, this is low-impact hypocrisy. Compared to Mitt Romney (who lavished more than $40 million of his own money on his 2008 campaign) and Jon Huntsman (blessed with a billionaire father), Santorum is a tin-cup Republican. My point in mentioning Santorum's Costco claims is not to wield the gotcha guillotine. Rather, it is to suggest that the movies running in the heads of all the candidates are different from what the press and the public see.

On this sub-freezing morning, Santorum unaccountably spoke from the end zone of the football field at tiny Rivier College. It was so cold that Santorum urged his supporters not to applaud because their efforts at enthusiasm were muffled by their gloves. The outdoor venue was an acknowledgement of the superpower status of New Hampshire's fire marshals. They had repeatedly closed down Santorum events, which had been booked into tiny rooms to create an ersatz sense of excitement, using the oldest trick in a political advance man's playbook.

On Friday afternoon in Manchester, the fire marshals forced Santorum to speak without amplification from the parking lot of a catering hall. Watching the candidate, who lost his 2006 Senate race and was left for road kill in almost all of the pre-caucus Iowa polls, work his way through an excited scrum of supporters, you could sense that Santorum--his face flush with the joy of vindication--will treasure these moments of exuberance for the rest of his life. (That assumes that Santorum will never make it to the White House. Asked Monday how he expects to do in New Hampshire, the under-funded Santorum said honestly, "In my dreams, second place.")

The scene in the Manchester parking lot was bedlam--shivering supporters, the news media horde, and protesters who were thrilled that the target of their ire was so close at hand. As Santorum spoke, he kept being interrupted by Vermin Supreme, an oddball presidential candidate and performance artist equipped with a bullhorn. Finally, looking out at the scene, Santorum uttered words that I never expected to hear from this Sam's Club Republican: "This is like a Fellini movie."

Yes, of course, Santorum has every right to revere Fellini films like La Dolce Vita, Satyricon and Casanova. There is no political pledge that requires him to sign up only for John Wayne film festivals from Netflix. It was a little campaign moment that illuminates a larger truth: Presidential candidates are complicated creatures. Richard Nixon had his good days and Abraham Lincoln was not always a secular saint.

No candidate works as hard as Mitt Romney to be one-dimensional: Dudley Do-Right with a Harvard MBA. And if ever there was a moment for Romney's normal aversion to spontaneity to prevail, it was when the Republican front-runner began his victory lap around New Hampshire after surviving the weekend's night-day debate doubleheader. Reruns of Teletubbies offer more intellectual nourishment than Romney's impeccably choreographed Sunday afternoon rally at the century-old Opera House in Rochester.

Everything followed the deliberately non-controversial script--except for one telling Romney ad lib. Boasting about his business experience, the central selling point of his second campaign for the White House, Romney said: "I've learned what it's like to sign the front of the paycheck, not just the back of the paycheck and to know how frightening it is to see whether you can make payroll at the end of the week … 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."

The candidate's father, George Romney, never attended college, rose to head an auto company, was elected to two terms as Michigan's governor and, for a brief shining moment in 1967, was a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. With that family pedigree and his own ambition, Mitt Romney was always on a trajectory for success. Even if he had been handed a pink slip during the fledgling days of his business career, Romney, with his Harvard business and law degrees, was never destined for homeless shelters or sleeping under bridges.

The pink-slip slip-up fits neatly into the Romney Is Out of Touch storyline peddled by both the press and the former Massachusetts governor's rivals in both parties. Rick Perry (yes, he is still in the race) cracked Monday, while campaigning in South Carolina, "I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips, whether he was going to have enough of them to hand out--because his company Bain Capital and all the jobs that they killed."

It is, of course, nonsense that a president has to have endured a hard-knocks life to empathize with the downtrodden. This has been a home-spun myth in American politics since the days of William Henry Harrison's hard-cider campaign in 1840, but the records of patrician presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy are strong counter-examples. That is why Romney's wealth and even his job-creation record at Bain Capital tell us little about how President Mitt might govern from the Oval Office.

What matters are the lessons that Romney himself derives from his financial success. So I want to step back for a moment and try to imagine what was going through Romney's mind as he pretended to be just like every worker in America who fears being laid off. Part of his motivation was obviously a political effort to defuse the silver-spoon and Bain-Capital-tycoon attacks from the just-completed Meet the Press debate. But my hunch (and I am not trying to be one of those Forever Jung psychoanalysts from the press corps) is that there was also something else behind Romney's ill-advised remarks. He was probably thinking back to a few moments of nervousness during his early days as a business consultant and his initial worries that Bain Capital, which he helped found, might not prosper. The hero of the autobiographical movie that is running in Mitt Romney's head is a buccaneer risk-taker who is willing to gamble everything on his vision of business success.

If my theory is true, Romney sincerely believes that he is a self-made man. It would be one thing if he privately acknowledges all the built-in advantages in his life, starting with the family name and the business and political connections that came with it. It would be far different if Romney sees himself as the hero of a modern Horatio Alger story, making his way in the world through sheer pluck. In that case, there would be a temptation to scorn those who have not applied themselves to climbing the ladder of success like he has. So what I worry about is Romney's compassion--or lack of it. And not whether he was pandering to voters when he claimed he worried about being fired.

Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist, described Newt Gingrich as often "playing a part in a historical novel he's dictating in his mind--Newt the underdog, Newt the visionary." I would guess that all presidential candidates with a dollop of imagination do roughly the same thing. Their visions may not be as inter-galactic as Gingrich's, but such private narratives are major internal motivators on the campaign trail as the days grow cold and the time grows short. And sometimes, whether the topic is Costco or pink slips, the candidates offer a revealing glimpse of the stories they tell themselves.

Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of Yahoo News columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.

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