BEXLEY, Ohio—It was one of Mitt Romney's best moments on the campaign trail. At a town hall here Wednesday at Capital University, a man stood up and told the Republican presidential candidate that he strongly admired his long career in the private sector and in politics. But, the man said, could Romney show that he actually has a heart?
It could have been an awkward moment, especially for Romney--who has struggled with his sometimes robotic persona on the campaign stump. Romney aides have long been nervous about putting the candidate in unscripted situations that could easily turn hostile and lead him off the message of the day. They point to John McCain's rolling news conferences on his campaign bus and his endless town halls in 2008 as a sign that a presidential candidate needs to be more disciplined to win.
To the voter in Bexley, Romney, already loose from what was a largely freewheeling question and answer session with voters, bluntly admitted he has a problem.
"Most people just see you in the debates," Romney told the man. "And so we stand there all in our suits, you know, we're all wearing white shirts, blue suits, black shoes, and either a red or blue tie. We all stand there looking somewhat alike and get 60 seconds to answer questions like, How do we bring peace to the world? And in settings like that, why, people don't get to know you very well. And in settings like this, with questions like that, you can get to know me a little bit better."
And with that, Romney spent several minutes explaining his values and his life experiences—beginning with his marriage to his wife, Ann, whom he called "the most important thing in my life." He said the greatest challenge in his life was when his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"Ann and I fell in love young. We're still in love. We have a marriage that is still filled with love," Romney said. "Her happiness is my happiness. I care more about that than anything in the world."
He spoke about his five sons—saying that he hoped to be remembered most for being a good father—and his 16 grandchildren, describing them as the joy of his life.
And Romney touched on a subject he rarely speaks about on the campaign trail: his time as a lay pastor for the Mormon church. He said his religion is "an unusual religion in a number of respects," including that it doesn't have a paid ministry and that it falls to members like him to be its leaders.
"It took about 20, 30, 40 hours a week in some weeks," Romney said. "So besides my regular job, I was pastoring people in my congregation--and people of different backgrounds, different nationalities and different circumstances of life."
With a few exceptions, Romney excels at town halls, connecting with voters in a way he doesn't when he delivers a straight, unwavering stump speech.
At the same time, it's easy to see why Romney's aides are so wary. The former Massachusetts governor's biggest missteps on the campaign trail have largely been because of throwaway comments at events—including his offhand remark last week that his wife, Ann, drives "a couple of Cadillacs."
And in an interview with the Ohio News Network Wednesday--one that encapsulated the worry that Romney aides have about putting the candidate in unscripted situations--Romney set off a news media storm when he suggested he did not support a congressional amendment offered by Roy Blunt, a Republican senator from Missouri, that aims to reverse the Obama administration's policy requiring religious-affiliated institutions to provide its employees health coverage that covers contraception.
Romney had previously spoken out against the Obama policy, but in the interview, he appeared to state he did not support the Blunt amendment.
"I'm not for the bill," Romney said. "But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I'm not going there."
The Romney campaign quickly clarified the candidate's remarks, insisting he does support the measure. The campaign blamed the misstep on how the reporter had phrased the question, saying the query was delivered in a "rushed" manner. And then Romney himself was forced to clarify, telling Boston radio host Howie Carr that he "didn't understand the question."
"Of course I support the Blunt amendment. I thought he was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception," Romney said.
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