KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Mitt Romney has long been criticized for being stiff on the campaign stump. But on Friday night, a different Romney showed up at a town hall on the campus of Western Michigan University. Addressing a crowd of a few hundred people, the candidate was loose, jovial and genuinely funny—the man, those closest to him say, he really is behind closed doors.
Within seconds of taking the microphone, Romney, as he does at every stop here, talked up his roots in the state, where he grew up as the son of a popular Republican governor. But he deviated from the usual story he tells voters, and instead explained how his drive to the event had taken him pastBrighton, the town where his parents are buried even though the family had no connections there.
“My dad, trust my dad. My dad is a very frugal man. He checked all over for where the best deal was on a gravesite. And he found a place in Brighton,” Romney explained. “Because we didn’t live in Brighton, It’s like, ‘How did you pick Brighton, Dad?’ Well, ‘Best price I could find in the whole state.’ So if you’re looking for the best deal on a gravesite, check Brighton, they’ve got a good spot. You’ll be near the former governor and first lady.”
The crowd burst into laughter, but Romney wasn’t finished. When a man stood up and argued in favor of manned space flights, Romney pushed back, saying that while he was in favor of exploration, he wanted the country to be able to afford it.
“Some people say, Oh, we’ve got to get to the moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China,” Romney said. “It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right? And when you get there, would you bring back some of the stuff we left?” The crowd laughed again.
Wearing a sly smile on his face, Romney spent an hour taking questions that were at times hostile. At one point, a woman stood up and began reading talking points from a clipboard. She said she had received nine phone calls from his campaign attacking his rival, Rick Santorum, and–echoing Santorum’s message on the stump–she questioned why any voter should trust Romney when he had reversed his position on abortion rights.
On another day, Romney might have gotten defensive. But instead he tried to defuse the moment with humor. “First of all,” he replied, “I’m disappointed to hear you received nine calls. You should have received a lot more than that.”
Romney’s jovial mood was both unusual and surprising. Just hours before, the candidate had given a speech against the backdrop of an empty NFL stadium in Detroit—a photo opp that had overshadowed what aides had billed as a major economic speech. The lack of new details in the speech prompted most reporters to focus on the event’s setting—a move that angered the Romney camp, who insisted that because they had not picked the venue the criticism was unfair.
One Romney campaign adviser, who declined to be quoted by name, insisted the news media was being harder on the former Massachusetts governor than his rivals. “Our guy spoke to 1,200 people,” the Romney aide grumbled. Pointing to a Santorum economic speech on Friday night that was attended by less than 200 people, the aide said, “Why doesn’t anyone report about Rick Santorum’s logistics? Why don’t people write more about his crowd size?”
The tensions between the campaign and media come as Romney and his staff are bracing for what could be a longer, more bruising Republican primary than they expected. Although it’s not even March—the month in which John McCain had effectively wrapped up his nomination bid in 2008—aides admit they are already exhausted, victims of what has been a primary campaign of extreme highs and lows for Romney, beginning with what looked to be a slim victory in Iowa that was later taken away in a recount.
“It’s a tiring process … It’s a very grueling process,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s political strategist, toldYahoo News. “It’s just how it is.”
With the exception of the Kalamazoo town hall, Romney has appeared less energetic on the trail compared to his grueling push through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His energy has seemed to ebb and flow, based on his own success. After a stronger than expected victory in Florida, Romney seemed to regain his confidence after a loss in South Carolina. But the combined losses of Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota—states that awarded no delegates but nonetheless shook his momentum—damaged Romney’s spirits, according to aides.
In recent days, the staff members who travel with Romney on the trail have been monitoring his moods closely—communicating that information back to advisers who are stationed at his Boston campaign headquarters. To boost the candidate’s spirits, a staffer regularly decorates his bus with pictures that wire photographers covering the campaign have taken at various events along the trail—a collection that changes every few days.
Not unlike other campaigns, his aides have tried to shield Romney from purely bad headlines, giving him a daily news summary of how his campaign is being received. But Romney often shirks that filter, reading newspapers on his iPad and consulting with his family and close friends who give him their blunt assessments about how things are going.
While aides insist they always planned for a long primary race—pointing to the grueling fight in 2008 between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that lasted well into the summer—there are signs that they weren’t entirely prepared for how up and down the race would be.
In recent weeks, the campaign has stepped up its fundraising to prepare for the possibility that the race continues until the party convention in August. Last week, Stevens complained about the proliferation of so-called super PACs that have raised millions of dollars to keep the Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the race—an odd gripe since Romney was the first candidate to open the door to unlimited fundraising by his supporters.
“A campaign never dies because a candidate wants it to die, it’s because they run out of money,” Stevens said. “What (super PACs) have done is allow these campaigns to have a couple of big donors to keep their campaigns alive.”