- Associated Press - Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mitt Romney hit an off note when he told a “humorous” story about his dad shutting down a factory.

Robert De Niro managed to get both Newt Gingrich and the Obama campaign riled up when he joked at an Obama fundraiser that America isn’t ready for a white first lady.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, still nursing wounds from his failed presidential campaign, did himself a world of good with his self-deprecating jokes at a recent Washington dinner.

Done right, humor can be a huge asset for a politician. But it is fumbled easily in the overheated environment of a political campaign.

That may be why Mr. Romney’s aides sent him to the “The Tonight Show” last week with these instructions: “Don’t try and be funny.”

The Republican presidential front-runner largely complied, and that worked out just fine for him. But he apparently forgot his advisers’ advice the next day when he attempted to be funny on a conference call with people in next-to-vote Wisconsin.

Mr. Romney recounted what he called a “humorous” story about the time his father, then an auto executive, shut down a factory in Michigan and moved it to Wisconsin. Later, when his dad was in a parade while running for Michigan governor, the marching band kept playing the University of Wisconsin fight song.

“Every time they would start playing ‘On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!’ my dad’s political people would jump up and down and try to get them to stop,” Mr. Romney said with a laugh.

A joke about closing factories? What was he thinking?

Jokes that might be funny another time often don’t pass muster under the klieg lights of a presidential campaign.

Mr. De Niro attempted satire during a New York fundraiser headlined by Michelle Obama this month when he ticked off the names of the wives of the GOP presidential candidates and then joked that America wasn’t “ready for a white first lady.”

Donors roared their approval. But by the next morning, Mr. Gingrich was calling the racial reference to the Republican wives “inexcusable” and the chastened Obama campaign was labeling the actor’s comments “inappropriate.”

Mr. De Niro at first declined to comment but ended up apologizing - sort of.

“My remarks, although spoken with satirical jest, were not meant to offend or embarrass anyone,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Perry, whose Republican presidential campaign quickly floundered in the primaries, took a big step toward rehabilitating his image with his appearance recently at a fancy Washington dinner for journalists and their guests.

He got plenty of laughs when he joked that his time as the GOP front-runner had been “the three most exhilarating hours of my life.”

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