'Let Mitt Be Mitt': But Who Was He? : It's All Politics One of the biggest challenges Mitt Romney faced in his presidential campaign was the question of likability. Almost everyone who knows him likes him, but that likable guy was hard to find on the campaign trail — until the very end.

'Let Mitt Be Mitt': But Who Was He?

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People who follow Mitt Romney's presidential campaign are doing postmortems on a different kind of disaster. There are many explanations for what went wrong for Romney; some validity to each explanation. The staff, it is said, was not the best. The Republican Party has a demographic problem. Those growing minority populations favor Democrats.


This morning, we're going to look deeply at one, big challenge Mitt Romney faced. Americans want to like their president; and almost everyone who knows Mitt Romney personally, does like him. But that likeable guy was hard to find on the campaign trail. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been traveling with Romney from the beginning, and he has this final retrospective.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In the earliest days of this campaign, Mitt Romney visited the self-proclaimed ice cream capital of the world: Le Mars, Iowa. He talked about his plans for the United States, and why he thought he should be the Republican presidential nominee. But when it came time to talk about himself, Mitt Romney outsourced the job.


SHAPIRO: Craig Romney told an odd story, about a family triathlon. His father's opponent was a daughter-in-law who had just given birth to her second child.


SHAPIRO: The crowd laughed nervously. This story was designed to show Romney as a guy who fights to the very end. Instead, he sounded kind of heartless.

Mitt Romney never liked talking about himself. He thought it was unseemly. Also, talking about himself meant talking about his Mormon religion, and the campaign wasn't sure how voters would feel about that. So he talked about other things - like the economy, and President Obama. That created an opening that his rivals quickly filled.


SHAPIRO: That video was not produced by the Obama campaign. It was from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's team. Texas Gov. Rick Perry coined a phrase that immediately sank its talons into the narrative.


SHAPIRO: And Romney? Well, his campaign didn't go the standard route of producing biographical videos introducing the candidate to voters. They produced plenty of ads, but almost all of them were attacks on the other guys.


SHAPIRO: Attack ads may hurt their target, but they also hurt the person creating the message. A portrait emerged of Romney as a cold-hearted, severely conservative robber baron. And that was before the Obama campaign even lifted a finger.

In person, Romney could be warm and funny. One-on-one, he interacted with people naturally. But when the cameras turned on, that side of him disappeared. Aides complained that he became some kind of bizarre, awkward automaton. One staffer joked with reporters, that he should tell Mitt Romney a session was off the record; but tell the press it was on the record because if Romney knew he was being recorded, his genuine side would skitter away like a rabbit. When Romney did speak off the cuff, with cameras rolling, he often said things that came across as pandering, or out of touch. In Mississippi, he opened a speech with this...


SHAPIRO: In Michigan, where he grew up, Romney should have been a natural. Instead, he said things that made him sound like a visitor from another planet...


SHAPIRO: This created a feedback loop in the Romney campaign. His staffers realized that when they let him talk, he screwed up. So they cut way back on the spontaneous interactions. He rarely dropped by restaurants unannounced, as other candidates do. He almost never talked to the press. This created fewer embarrassing remarks, sure. But there were also fewer opportunities for genuine, illuminating moments. By the time the primaries ended, Romney's favorability ratings were in the gutter - 29 percent, according to pollster Andy Kohut, of Pew.

ANDY KOHUT: Twenty-nine percent favorable is a pretty rough number, for a person running for president of the United States.

SHAPIRO: It wasn't until August that the campaign finally realized they had to change course. They created a moving, glossy, 10-minute video showing Romney with his kids, and his wife.


SHAPIRO: It was positioned to reach a huge audience. The plan was to show it on the climactic night of the Republican National Convention, in Tampa. It was set to open the hour of the convention that peaked with Romney's acceptance speech. But at the last minute, the campaign bumped the video to the previous hour, when none of the TV networks were tuned in. And in the slot where the video was originally scheduled to play? Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair, imagining President Obama sitting there.


SHAPIRO: This sad story did have a turnaround - after the first presidential debate. Romney won, hands down, and the campaign decided - in their words - to let Mitt be Mitt. Within days, he was telling personal stories on the trail; like this, one about a 14-year-old with leukemia, who he met through his church.


SHAPIRO: That's what Americans wanted to hear, too. The Mitt Romney who sat down next to that teenager with leukemia; had not sat down with the American voter, until then. It was just one month before the election, but it clicked. Tens of thousands of people showed up at rallies, chanting his name.


SHAPIRO: On Election Day, Romney dropped by a campaign office near Cleveland.


: Hi...thank you...

SHAPIRO: Eighty-one-year-old Phyllis Froimsen giggled like a teenager, at the chance to meet him.

PHYLLIS FROIMSEN: I think he's very handsome. (LAUGHTER) He really is. He's a good-looking guy.

SHAPIRO: OK, so you just met him. How does it feel?

FROIMSEN: I feel like a million bucks. (LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: By the time people went to the polls this week, something remarkable had happened. Romney's favorability numbers had climbed to a tie with President Obama's. But it wasn't enough. Likeable people can still lose. Months ago, in one of his more candid moments with reporters, Mitt Romney talked about the lessons he'd learned from his father. George Romney also ran for president, unsuccessfully, more than 40 years ago. Mitt Romney said his father never dwelled on defeat; didn't obsess, or rehash what had gone wrong. His father let go, and moved on. Mitt Romney was asked whether he shares that trait, and replied with one word: No.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Boston.


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