New York Times political reporter Ashley Parker made Wednesday’s front page with yet another “Isn’t Romney stiff?”-themed story, “The Retooled, Loose Romney, Guessing Voters’ Age and Ethnicity,” cowritten with Michael Barbaro.
The Times has put Romney's mannerisms under the microscope on several occasions. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in 2004, was another rich Northern politician with a reputation for woodenness and lack of the common touch, but it certainly wasn’t a dominant theme of Times campaign coverage.
When Mitt Romney introduces himself to voters, he has a peculiar habit of guessing their age or nationality, often incorrectly. (A regular query: “Are you French Canadian?”)
When making small talk with locals, he peppers the conversation with curious details. (“We stayed in the Courtyard hotel last night,” he told a woman at a diner. “It’s a LEED-certified hotel.”)
But perhaps the trickiest part of this reinvention is changing who Mr. Romney is when he steps out from behind the lectern and wades into a roomful of voters: a cautious chief executive who is uneasy with off-the-cuff remarks, unnatural at chitchat and spare with his emotions.
At coffee shops and veterans’ halls, on sidewalks and factory tours, the reworked version, it turns out, is not all that different from the original.
A close-up study of Mr. Romney’s casual interactions with voters captures a candidate who can be efficient, funny and self-deprecating, yet often strains to connect in a personal way.
Mr. Romney has plenty of moments when he wins positive reactions and some when he seems to make a genuine link, undercutting his caricature as robotic. And he is hardly giving up on mastering the art of the soft sell: he personally insisted on spending more hours talking to voters this election and fewer sequestered in his Boston headquarters. The calculation may prove crucial in a year when a procession of rivals -- Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich -- has roused the Republican base with colorful personalities and dynamic speaking styles.
Who has been spreading the “caricature” that Romney was robotic? Well, Parker, actually, in the first sentence of her December 12 story: “Mitt Romney -- he of the inscrutable, overly polished and occasionally robotic mien -- is striving mightily to humanize himself just three weeks before the first round of voting begins.”
In Wednesday's story Parker provided “a guide to Mr. Romney’s habits and quirks on the campaign trail.”
For a candidate who is exceedingly risk-averse, Mr. Romney has developed an unlikely penchant for trying to puzzle out everything from voters’ personal relationships to their ancestral homelands.
“Sisters?” he asked. (Nope, stepmother and stepdaughter.) “Your husband?” he wondered. (No, just a friend from the neighborhood.) “Mother and daughter?” he guessed. (Cousins, actually.)
The results can be awkward. “Daughter?” he asked a woman sitting with a man and two younger girls at the diner in Tilton, N.H., on Friday morning. Her face turned a shade of red. “Wife.”
Oh, Mr. Romney said. “It was a compliment, I guess,” said the woman, Janelle Batchelder, 31. “At the same time, it was possibly an insult.”
And does any other candidate, or other news subject, get his or her laughter spelled out? Parker and Barbaro did it twice, as in this paragraph:
Sometimes Mr. Romney will engage in a back-and-forth with tough questioners; in Concord, N.H., a woman told him that she favored socialized medicine. “I’ve got someone for you,” Mr. Romney said. “His name is Barack Obama. He agrees with you. Ha-ha.”