Working to break his own storybook spell

Times Staff Writer

Mitt Romney arrives at his campaign headquarters here 10 minutes early, a knife-blade crease in his khakis, winter tan, lots of hair, all of it in place. He skips the coffee and doughnuts in favor of skim milk and the home-baked granola sent along in a zip-lock baggie by his wife. That’s Ann, his high school sweetheart -- the mother of his five handsome sons -- with whom he says he has never had a serious argument in 38 years of marriage.

By central-casting standards, the former Massachusetts governor is the perfect presidential specimen -- a comforting throwback to the 1950s, when nobody got divorced (they fell in love in high school and that was it), mothers stayed at home (he dubbed Ann the Romney CFO -- chief family officer) and the greatest parental challenge was making the boys practice their piano (Ann used to pinch their necks).

But as his campaign picks up speed in a wide-open GOP field, Romney comes face to handsome face with an unusual challenge: Can a candidate appear too perfect? It’s a question that modern American voters, fed a steady diet of infidelity, divorce, pot smoking, high-class call girls and foil-wrapped cash stashed in freezers, have not had to ponder in a long time.


For rock-solid Republicans in early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire, the “Father Knows Best” image seems to resonate: Romney leads in polls in both states, even though he trails the twice-divorced, sometimes-dressed-in-drag former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in national surveys.

But if his political record is any indication, Romney’s storybook personal life could backfire as he tries to broaden his appeal to a general-election audience. That was the case in the 2002 governor’s race, when his campaign aired the “Ann” ad -- in which she described him as “very romantic” and he described her as “just good to the core” -- and his poll numbers tanked overnight.

It cannot be overlooked that this was Massachusetts, which was economically depressed at the time, and the sight of a well-to-do Mitt frolicking in a lake with his well-behaved sons left voters feeling more alienated than inspired. (He came back to win, in part because his opponent turned out to be sort of a sourpuss, which voters liked even less.)

Still, Romney seems to have learned that a well-placed flaw or two can be an advantage, putting his campaign team in the unique position of pointing out his shortcomings while his rivals struggle to make voters forget theirs.

“He’s quick to temper and he doesn’t like it when things don’t go as planned. His children will tell you that he has his faults,” Eric Fehrnstrom -- Romney’s longtime communications director, who knows him like a book -- recited after a New Hampshire town hall where Romney was enthusiastically received. It was further noted that Romney has a brother and a sister who are divorced.

“Mitt Romney is not more perfect than you or I,” Fehrnstrom asserted, a point the candidate himself seemed to want to underscore at a recent televised debate in Florida when he shooed away a makeup artist who tried to fix a wayward strand of hair on his forehead. The campaign got more calls about his hair than anything he said onstage.

“I think they know a real Boy Scout image is potentially damaging because it could be caricatured,” said Andrew E. Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire. “Average people need to relate to him better . . . to be able to say, ‘Oh, I’ve been there too.’ ”

When Giuliani warned voters this week to beware “this pretense of perfection,” he mentioned Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s acknowledgment of past drug use, but he was really aiming at Romney’s picture-perfect past.

Romney’s life looks like a photo album of the American dream: two homes, one in a posh Boston suburb and the other on a New Hampshire lakeside; four cars (he drives a red Mustang, Ann a Cadillac SUV); a friendly dog, big Christmases, church every Sunday, meaningful family discussions (Web viewers can watch as the Romneys gather on the sofa to ponder his run for president). If he has a vice, it’s chocolate malts.

At the same time, his glide path was remarkably free of hardship, not the Horatio Alger story Americans sometimes warm to in a candidate. The son of Michigan governor and former American Motors Corp. Chairman George Romney, Willard Mitt Romney was born into privilege, raised in a devout Mormon home and educated at Harvard. He made a fortune in business and then entered politics, just like his dad. His first real tragedy was his wife’s 1998 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which he calls the worst day of his life. (Her illness is in remission.)

Romney runs his campaign operation like the business executive he was: disciplined, on message and on time -- often early. (The media assigned to follow him got speeding tickets trying to keep up until the campaign mercifully chartered two vans.)

Indeed, when a woman he bumps into while walking precincts here happens to mention he was once half an hour late to a house party, Romney stops dead in the middle of the street and turns disbelievingly to an aide: “I was late? I’m never late. . . . When was I a half-hour late?” It is finally determined that he was not late, the world makes sense again, and he trots happily down the block, where a “Mitt Romney for President” yard sign the size of a billboard greets him.

“Oh my gosh!” he beams, breathless. His speech is peppered with goshes and holy molys, the all-American boy at 60, sideburns graying, 11 grandchildren, but still as gorgeous as he was in 2002 when People magazine named him one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world.

On this autumn day in New Hampshire, where the falling leaves are as big as dinner plates and pumpkins adorn the stoops, Romney’s wholesome image seems a welcome change for voters he meets, every one of them disappointed by Washington’s conduct.

“If you can’t run a family, how can you run a country?” one man says after hearing a Romney stump speech, with its characteristic call for building stronger families by teaching teenagers they should marry before having babies.

When Kirsten Doogue, 32 and a registered independent, is asked if the candidate who had just knocked on her door was “too perfect,” she scoffs: “That’s just a ridiculous complaint.” She and her husband are on their front porch in stocking feet, their 1-year-old baby asleep inside. “Maybe I’m still young and hopeful to have a perfect life myself.”

Romney is not without political weak spots. Among them are his shifts on such divisive issues as abortion and gay rights, which he favored more liberally as governor of a blue state than he does now as he courts the conservative Republican vote. “The older I get, the smarter Ronald Reagan gets” is the way he explains it, crediting philosophical evolution rather than political pandering.

And Romney found himself on the defensive in recent months over his sons’ failure to join the military despite his own strong endorsement of the Iraq war. Critics found the lack of service hypocritical and Romney’s explanation glib: “And one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected, because they think I’d be a great president.” (Romney, who supported the Vietnam War, never enlisted either.)

But on the campaign trail, those vulnerabilities are mostly overshadowed by a personal life that is displayed as prominently as his leadership experience or his stands against illegal immigration, global jihad and higher taxes.

The Mitt Mobile trundles the entire Romney clan across parts of America; the website offers a chance to swap recipes with Ann or interact with the five grown Romney sons, all married and admiring of their father -- the youngest, Craig, so much so that on Halloween he sprayed his sideburns gray, put on a blue suit and went as his dad. (His wife spurned his suggestion to dress as her mother-in-law, opting for Pocahontas instead.)

At his trademark “Ask Mitt Anything” sessions -- Romney has held hundreds of them since announcing his candidacy in January -- he invites voters to fire away with even “the most embarrassing and awkward questions.” Translation: No skeletons in the Romney closet.

At this one in picturesque Hopkinton, the first question is from a little girl who wants to know about his Thanksgiving traditions. He obliges with a narrative of the happy day, from touch football to the Detroit Lions game to Ann’s “perfectly smooth” sweet potatoes, which she prepares with lots of butter and a little cooking sherry. (With this detail, an aide rushes to the press corps to explain that the alcohol burns off in the cooking and is therefore not a violation of Mormon law.) Then they all retire to the couches for a post-feast nap.