GREEN BAY, Wis.—Mitt Romney seemed to know almost immediately that he had picked the wrong person to call on at a town hall meeting here.
Standing up with a sheet of paper in one hand and a video camera in the other, the young man nervously told Romney that he had concerns about his religion.
"I guess a lot of people say that, you know, your Mormon faith may not be a concern in this election, but I think it might be," the questioner, who later identified himself to reporters as Bret Hatch, a 28-year-old supporter of Ron Paul, told Romney.
Hatch began to cite what he said were scriptures from the Book of Mormon that describes the "cursing" of people with the skin of "blackness." The passage referred to once-held beliefs within the Mormon Church that dark skinned people are inferior to whites — and Romney quickly interrupted.
"I'm sorry, we're just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view," the candidate tersely said, as a Romney staffer tried to take away Hatch's microphone. "But if you have a question, I'll be happy to answer your question."
Hatch nervously continued. "I guess my question is, do you believe it's a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?" he said in a quiet, halting voice.
"No," an obviously irritated Romney shot back, cutting off the questioner. "Next question."
On most days, Romney would have proceeded on, as if the awkward moment hadn't happened. But a few minutes later, after questions about job creation and health care, Romney returned to the subject of his faith after a voter asked about his ability to connect with average Americans.
"This gentleman wanted to talk about the doctrines of my religion," Romney said, glancing toward Hatch. "I'll talk about the practices of my faith."
As he has occasionally mentioned at previous campaign events, Romney went on to talk at length about his work as a volunteer Mormon lay pastor for his church in Boston. He spoke about how it had helped him to connect with people who hadn't come from the same kind of fortunate background he had.
"That gave me the occasion to work with people on a very personal basis that were dealing with unemployment, with marital difficulties, with health difficulties of their own and with their kids," the candidate explained. "Most Americans, by the way, are carrying a burden of some kind. We don't see it. We see someone on the street, they smile and say hello, but behind them they are carrying kind of a bag of rocks. It may be their own health difficulties. It may be concern about a job. It may be inability to pay for the home or the college they were hoping to pay for for a child."
"When you get a chance to know people on a very personal basis, whether you're serving as a pastor or as a counselor or in other kinds of roles, you understand that every kind of person you see is facing some challenges," Romney continued. "And one of the reasons I'm running for president of the United States is I want to help people, I want to lighten those burdens."
Romney's response was the kind of answer his campaign staff has been encouraging him to undertake on the trail for months — a reply that not only acknowledged a voter's question but also pivoted to reveal something personal about his own life. The former Massachusetts governor has long been dogged on the trail by criticism that he's too stiff and formal to connect with voters, and aides have worried that Romney's awkwardness won't just hurt him in the Republican primary but also as a general election candidate against President Obama.
But as he has traveled throughout Wisconsin seeking votes ahead of Tuesday's primary, Romney has tinkered with his usual banter with voters, dropping anecdotes about his wife, Ann, or their five sons into random questions that aren't always family centered in hopes of humanizing his candidacy.
At a town hall in Milwaukee Tuesday, a voter asked a rambling question about Eagle Scouts and their ability to camp on public lands. Romney explained he was unfamiliar with a land dispute the voter mentioned, but used the moment to talk about his sons and joke about his own parenting skills.
"I was not an Eagle Scout…but I have three sons who were Eagle Scouts. Now you know I have five, and the first two didn't get Eagles and the reason for that is mom and dad didn't know how important it was for mom and dad to help them in the process of becoming Eagle Scouts," Romney said, as the audience broke into a smattering of applause and laughter. "But we learned after the first two and got it right for the next three."
Romney told the audience he "loved" the Eagle Scouts because of the principals it had instilled in his kids, including love of country and personal responsibility—two things, he said, that influenced his own decision to serve the country.
A few minutes later, in response to a question of why he had decided to run for president, Romney used the moment to talk about his wife, Ann, and the tough times they had weathered, including her battle with multiple sclerosis.
"I fell in love with her in high school, and I am still passionately in love with that woman," Romney declared. The audience applauded approvingly.
It was a side of Romney that his staff and even his family have encouraged him to reveal on the stump, but it's been difficult because Romney, aides say, feels uncomfortable talking about himself. The campaign has solved the problem by pairing Romney on the stump with his wife—who makes her husband feel at ease and often brings out his lighter side in their talks with voters. But his family and staff have encouraged Romney to branch out on his own so that Ann Romney can be deployed as a campaign asset elsewhere.
It seems the advice isn't just coming from those closest to him. At two different stops on Monday, Romney casually mentioned he had gotten an email over the weekend from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker encouraging him to talk more about his experience shepherding the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"He sent me an email and said, you ought to do that more often," Romney explained in Green Bay. And so, he told the crowd, he would.
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