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Mitt Romney’s biggest test: Can he connect with voters?

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

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Romney at the Rochester Opera House (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

ROCHESTER, New Hampshire—So far, Mitt Romney has made few major missteps in his pursuit of the 2012 Republican nomination, running a consistent campaign largely free of the errors that have caused his GOP rivals to stumble. But the former Massachusetts governor isn't entirely immune from mistakes, and he often makes them when trying to work on what could be his greatest vulnerability as a candidate: his struggle to personally connect with voters.

Appearing on stage at a small but ornate opera house in this northern New Hampshire town, Romney was dressed as he often is on the campaign trail--in an outfit that was nice, but not too nice. He wore brown pants and a checkered button-down cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up that was wrinkled just enough to seem informal.

As he walked the stage, Romney was cast against the backdrop of his family, including his wife, Ann; his brother; three of his five sons; their wives and five of his 16 grandchildren who have joined him on the trail in recent days. The roving family tableau is clearly intended to  emphasize the steadiness of Romney's character and personal life--a major theme that the Romney campaign plays up in its primary-state appeals.

Speaking to voters, Romney delivered much of the same stump speech he's been giving for weeks—heavy on attacks against President Obama, talking up his experience in the private sector and boasting about his love of America. But on Sunday, he spoke in more personal terms about his experience as a venture capitalist—a profession that made Romney one of the wealthiest men ever to seek the presidency, while also providing fodder for attacks from Romney's GOP rivals.

On Sunday, Romney sought to humanize his resume, casting himself as a businessman who has struggled the same that others have struggled in a sluggish economy. "I know what it's like to worry whether you're gonna get fired," Romney explained to a crowd of several hundred people in Rochester. "There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.''

Romney offered no specific examples—nor did his campaign, when reporters  quizzed Romney aides about his statement after the event. "As a young person just out of college, he worked his way up the career ladder knowing that his continued employment was by no means guaranteed," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul told Yahoo News. "That's the way it is in the private sector."

But Romney's life experience has at times been far different from the occasional snapshots he shares with voters on the stump. To take the most obvious example, in stressing his extensive private-sector background, Romney frequently downplays his long political career—and his pedigree as the son of a former Michigan governor and former top auto industry executive who also once ran for president.

On Sunday, he told voters—as he frequently does—that he did not expect to run for president, in part to emphasize his argument that he's not a career politician.

"This is just a very strange and unusual thing to be in the middle of," Romney said in Rochester. "I mean, I was just a high school kid like everybody else with skinny legs. 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."

It was a claim that defied more than a little credulity, given that Romney is in the midst of his second presidential bid, which he unofficially kicked off almost as soon as he lost in 2008. What's more, Romney's awkward bid to depict himself as a political outsider reinforces what continues to be his biggest problem among voters: authenticity. Romney is trying hard to be the candidate of the people by insisting he's just like them--but in doing so, he's actually calling attention to the ways that his life experience has been so dramatically different than most average people.

Indeed, Romney's tendency to misstep is often related to his clumsy efforts to downplay his upper-echelon socioeconomic background. At a rally in Peterborough last week, he was in the midst of responding to a softball question from a young boy in the audience about why he would go through the "difficulties" of running for president when he went on a long riff about re-writing his will.

Before, he said, he'd planned to leave everything to his sons, but now, he laughed, "I want to leave it all to my grandchildren." He then tried to pivot quickly back to his larger point—that he wanted his grandkids to inherit a better country. But the net effect of his story was to remind voters of his immense wealth—a subject that his rivals and the Obama campaign have frequently used to suggest he's out of touch with the travails of ordinary Americans.

Romney hasn't always been awkward in talking about his money or his background. At an Iowa debate sponsored by ABC News and Yahoo in December, he fielded a question about the last time he's had a "personal financial strain" that forced him to give up something. In this instance, he readily admitted that he'd grown up in a home where money wasn't a problem—but he emphasized that his father had made sure he wasn't spoiled; instead, he explained, his father helped to raise him with a strong work ethic and a desire to help others who weren't as fortunate.

"I didn't grow up poor. And if somebody is looking for someone who's grown up with that background, I'm not the person. But I grew up with a dad who'd been poor, and my dad wanted to make sure I understood the lessons of hard work . . . and so they made sure we had jobs as we were growing up. They made sure we didn't spend money foolishly, and they made sure that I had a care and concern for other people," Romney said.  "I'm in this race not because I grew up without means, but because I understand what it takes to get America working again. And I love this country enormously and understand the principles and understand the specifics that it takes to get America creating jobs again."

Romney has been trying to replicate the impact of that direct, humanizing answer on the trail ever since. Among other things, he's increasingly emphasized his service to the Mormon church, a subject he once rarely talked about out of worries of alienating social conservative voters suspicious of his religion. During his Sunday appearance, he sought to humanize his tenure as head of Bain Capital Management, which has been central to his argument that he's created jobs in the private sector.

However, that claim has drawn flak the Obama campaign and rival GOP candidate Newt Gingrich, who claims Romney "looted" companies for profits and left people out of work. A super PAC supporting Gingrich has bought air time in South Carolina to air a 27-minute documentary critical of Romney that includes interviews with employees of companies purchased by Bain who say they lost their jobs.

But Romney offered a far different explanation on Sunday.

"You know, for a while I worked in what's called venture capital. What is that?" Romney told voters, with the air of a professor teaching his students. "Well, we got money from other people, and we would use that to help start businesses or sometimes acquire businesses that were in trouble or not doing so well and then try and make them better or get the businesses to grow. And when you have other people's money and your own invested in something you're very careful with it."

He cited as an example one of his standby campaign anecdotes--the account of how, when he was at Bain, he helped to launch the office-supply chain Staples, one of the best known and most successful businesses he was associated with.

"We opened the very first store. I was there the night we opened the first store. We helped stock the shelves," Romney said.

He emphasized that it wasn't fancy work. His office at the time, he explained, was in the "back of an old empty shopping mall." "Our chairs were naugahyde chairs with an old table that we used as the board table," he added. "People were, because it was the private sector we were pulling ourselves up, in some respect, by our bootstraps, we were careful."

Romney used the moment to contrast with the Obama administration's investment in Solyndra, a solar company that went bankrupt after receiving $500 million in loan guarantees from the federal government. "I won't be critical of the fact that businesses fail," he said. "I'm critical of the way they managed it and how much money they put in."

But along with his "pink slip" remark, it was a larger attempt by Romney to bond with voters as someone who has been an employee and an employer.

"I'm not perfect, but I do get it," Romney insisted.

His biggest challenge in coming weeks and months is whether voters will believe him.

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