Mitt Romney is working hard at being a regular guy.
Five days before the first voting takes place in the presidential campaign of 2012, the former private equity chief executive officer, governor of Massachusetts and scion of a prominent Mormon family wants voters to view him as just average.
Standing before several hundred voters in Mason City, Iowa, yesterday, Romney downplayed his time in political office.
“I served in government four years -- I like to say I didn’t inhale,” he said. “I’m a businessman. I’m a dad.”
His everyman efforts come as polls show his support rising among likely voters in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses as well as the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary -- signs Romney might quickly clinch the Republican presidential nomination. Already, Democrats are unveiling a barrage of attacks questioning whether a man who made hundreds of millions of dollars in private equity understands the economic anxieties facing many Americans.
This week, the Democratic National Committee circulated comments from Randy Johnson, a former labor organizer at the paper company Ampad, who described how workers were “devastated” when Bain Capital LLC, the company where Romney made his fortune, fired workers in 1992.
“What do I do?” Johnson told ABC News in an interview. “I don’t have a good college education,” he said. “Families were devastated.”
Jeans, Not Suits
The Romney campaign has long tried to signal that its multimillionaire candidate identifies more with workers than with management. They jettisoned the suits and ties he often wore in his 2008 campaign for president in exchange for jeans and rubber-soled brown loafers. Romney often talks about his flights on budget Southwest Airlines and meals at the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr.
Now, as his campaign begins to look toward the general election, those efforts have accelerated.
On the campaign trail, Romney casts his childhood in patriotic terms, recounting stories of cross-country car trips and his early life in Michigan.
“I drove my mom’s Rambler station wagon,” he told smiling voters, describing his high school years behind the wheel of a car that his father, an automotive executive, sold. “They called it Mrs. Romney’s grocery getter.”
Romney Versus Obama
Those memories are intended not just to help Romney connect with voters. They also underscore what may become one of his major messages if he wins his party’s nomination and challenges President Barack Obama.
In speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney has argued that Obama wants to transform the country into an “entitlement society” dependent on government aid. He proposes an “opportunity society” that allows business to flourish.
“I think the president has a very different vision than you have in this room about what America should be,” he told voters who gathered before sunrise to see him in Muscatine, Iowa. “I don’t want to transform America into something I wouldn’t recognize.”
To highlight the contrast, Romney recalls a childhood rooted in patriotic ideals. At Rastrelli’s Italian restaurant in Clinton, Iowa, he recited songs like spoken poetry, reading multiple verses of “American the Beautiful” aloud.
“I’ve been talking about some of my favorite songs, patriotic songs,” he said. “I love the national anthem. I love the ‘Battle Hymn of The Republic.’ I love ‘God Bless America.’”
Accusations that Romney is too rich to relate have dogged him since the start of the race. News in August of his plans to renovate his $12 million home in the posh La Jolla area of San Diego reminded voters of his fortune. His comment in June to jobless Florida voters that he too was unemployed sparked questions about his ability to connect with average voters.
Romney, whose financial disclosure in August estimated his personal wealth at as much as $250 million, is by far the wealthiest of the presidential candidates. He said on Dec. 22 that he has no plans to release his income tax returns if he wins his party’s nomination.
Romney has frequently referred to the rags-to-riches story of his father, George. The former Michigan governor started his career as a lathe-and-plaster carpenter and went on to head American Motors Corp., maker of that family Rambler. Romney often describes how his father would hold nails in his mouth and spit them out point-forward while working.
Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, also has been deployed more frequently on the campaign trial in an effort to humanize her husband.
Introducing him in Mason City, she told of their time as a young couple, describing the difficulties of raising five sons.
“All we do is wrestle, bounce balls and see how high you can jump,” she said. “And they never clean the kitchen.”
When he took the stage, Romney described being piled into the family car with his siblings to see the country.
“They wanted us to see the mountains, the rivers and the canyons and the sequoias and the oceans, so we went,” he told several hundred voters gathered in Music Man Square. “They wanted me to fall in love with America -- and I did.”
Standing before a replica of the set from “The Music Man,” the 1962 film based on the musical set in a fictional version of Mason City, he questioned whether Obama had the same understanding.
“I don’t think the president understands and his people understand what makes America such a powerful and dynamic nation,” Romney said. “I do.”