To warm up image, the Romneys are getting personal
Washington • Ann Romney buys Mitt shirts by the three-pack at Costco, and sometimes he does his own ironing. She's so moved by their commitment to tithing that, when they give the check to their church, she cries. They both envision a White House enlivened by "little feet in the hallway": their 18 visiting grandkids. As they try to warm up a candidate burdened by a cold-fish image, the Romneys are dishing out the endearing details.
Here's one America may not be ready for: Instead of syrup, he slathers his pancakes with peanut butter.
Such homey nuggets, part of an all-out effort anchored by this week's Republican National Convention, are meant to showcase a softer side for voters who may know Romney mostly as a multimillionaire businessman who occasionally blurts out something tone-deaf, such as "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
Polls put the presidential race neck in neck but give President Barack Obama a substantial lead when it comes to likeability and perceived empathy for regular folks.
How to turn that around? Invite a "60 Minutes" crew along on a visit to the Birmingham, Mich., movie theater where teen-aged Mitt and Ann had their first date, to see "The Sound of Music." Get their five handsome sons talking up Dad on TV. Invite reporters into the Romneys' spacious New Hampshire summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee to watch him flip pancakes, josh with his sons and frolic with the grandchildren and their dog.
Some of the personal stuff the Romneys are sharing:
To the grandkids, he's "Papa" and she's "Mamie."
Twenty-eight sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren pile into the lake house each summer for a weeklong reunion featuring family competitions known as the "Romney Olympics," from running races and tossing footballs to offbeat categories like sawing and hammering.
Another reunion tradition: The adults gather in the evenings to chew over each young couple's troubles and offer suggestions.
"We begin by taking one couple and let's talk about your life and the decisions you have, and everybody offers advice," Romney tells Fox News Channel.
Sound squirm-inducing? Son Tagg admits he's careful about which issues he puts on the table.
Mrs. Romney tells Parade magazine that tithing 10 percent to their church is an emotional time that reminds her "how much we trust God and love the principle of sacrifice."
"I love tithing. When Mitt and I give that check, I actually cry," she says.
"So do I," Romney jokes, "but for a different reason."
Despite his stiff image, joking around is typical of Romney when he's away from the cameras and doesn't have to watch every word, his wife says.
"Get him out of the public eye, put him in here, he is as loose and funny and spontaneous as you'd ever want to see and just so much fun to be with," she tells CNN in an interview held at the summer home.
The Romneys do their own cleaning and laundry 12 loads after this year's family reunion because "You know, Mitt and I are pretty independent. That's how we like it."
She cries sometimes when listening to his speeches, though she's heard the stories before. He cries, too but don't expect him to let people see it.
"I'm an emotional person," he says. "There is a, I don't know, a societal norm that if you're running for office, you can't be emotional, and perhaps I bow to that too often."
He was a high school senior and she was 16 when they met at a dance. She played it coy.
"I did fall madly in love with him very quickly, actually," she says. "But I was very aloof, very cool."
He agrees: "She set the hook deep. And I'd call and say, let's get together she was too busy. She went on with a date with someone else while I was pursuing her. Made me just crazy."
Romney's faith was strengthened by the 2Â½ years he spent traveling through France as a young Mormon missionary in the 1960s. Lots of doors were slammed in his face.
"You're out speaking with people, people day in and day out, about your faith, and about your religion and differences between it and other faiths. ... But you say, OK, wait a second. What's important here? What do I believe? What's truth? Is there a God? Is Jesus Christ the son of God?"
Fox News Channel asked Romney's five sons to describe him in one word:
"Frugal" and the more direct "cheap" come up. But so does "generous."
"Qualified" and "integrity" round out the list.
Mrs. Romney tears up when she talks about how her husband stood by her when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998: "It was like he was going to do anything he could to just say, I'm here, you're OK, just stay right there, and we'll be OK."
Amid all the interviews meant to humanize him, this time speaking with Parade, Romney tacitly acknowledges he's got image trouble but says what he can do for the economy is more important.
"It's nice to be loved," he says, "but it's better to be respected."
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