Romney tries to broaden appeal, tones down rhetoric

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WESTERVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch moment is at hand.

Now that he’s the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Romney is shifting away from the “red-meat” issues of abortion and immigration and instead holding more events highlighting his appeal as a regular guy.

The transformation played out Friday when Romney met with a handful of students at a small university classroom in central Ohio to listen to their thoughts about the economy over a greasy hamburger served in a Styrofoam container.

Romney’s appearance at Otterbein University wasn’t the full strategic shakeup from primary to general election that some Republicans feared, but it offered a glimpse into what aides say will be a shift in tone and focus in the coming weeks as Romney fights to deny President Barack Obama a second term.

He will favor more intimate settings, like the Ohio classroom, and a schedule that calls for fewer public appearances as the campaign hopes to show a softer side of the former Massachusetts governor who struggles at times to connect with average Americans. That’s a dramatic difference from Obama, who feeds on large crowds and has scheduled his first formal campaign rallies for May 5.

While the Republican presidential contest has been raging for more than a year, the Romney campaign concedes that most general election voters haven’t yet paid close attention. The campaign now sees an opportunity to reintroduce their candidate to the independents and moderate voters — Hispanics and younger voters, among them — who will ultimately help decide November’s general election. His focus will shift to Obama’s record, his own economic credentials and what aides call “inspirational themes.”

“I’m absolutely convinced that this nation is the greatest nation on earth, and it is so because of the American people, a people who stand united when called upon by leaders to be united,” Romney said at Otterbein University Friday, offering unusually measured remarks — even for the former businessman’s standards — mentioning Obama by name only a handful of times. “I will try and unite the American people, not divide us.”

But the stop at Otterbein University highlighted Romney’s challenge: His style on the campaign trail is a study in contrasts.

Romney is almost constantly cracking jokes with the people around him — whether they are governors or college students or his staff. He likes practical jokes and fast food, whether cameras are rolling or not. But he is at other times incredibly disciplined, refusing to take impromptu questions from reporters or wade into difficult subjects unprepared.

He often delivers remarks from a teleprompter — an aid he’s criticized Obama for using — and he rarely displays emotion in public. Campaigning in Puerto Rico last month, he may have been the only person on a crowded stage not dancing.

Indeed, despite the preparation and years of practice, Romney sometimes transmits an awkwardness even in intimate settings.

“Congratulations,” he said in between bites of a hamburger after Otterbein senior Jeff Fabus described his struggle to pay for college.

In more formal remarks to students later in the day, he raised some eyebrows after suggesting that students “take risks” — and even borrow money from their parents — to help improve their economic fortunes by finishing their education.

“This is kind of an American experience,” he said.

But Romney’s story is not typical of most Americans. Romney paid for his graduate education at Harvard University, in part, by selling stock that his father — a former Michigan governor — bought for him, Ann Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994.

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