WESTERVILLE, Ohio — Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch moment is at hand.
Now that he’s the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Romney is shifting away from the “red-meat” issues of abortion and immigration and instead holding more events highlighting his appeal as a regular guy.
The transformation played out Friday when Romney met with a handful of students at a small university classroom in central Ohio to listen to their thoughts about the economy over a greasy hamburger served in a Styrofoam container.
Romney’s appearance at Otterbein University wasn’t the full strategic shakeup from primary to general election that some Republicans feared, but it offered a glimpse into what aides say will be a shift in tone and focus in the coming weeks as Romney fights to deny President Barack Obama a second term.
He will favor more intimate settings, like the Ohio classroom, and a schedule that calls for fewer public appearances as the campaign hopes to show a softer side of the former Massachusetts governor who struggles at times to connect with average Americans. That’s a dramatic difference from Obama, who feeds on large crowds and has scheduled his first formal campaign rallies for May 5.
While the Republican presidential contest has been raging for more than a year, the Romney campaign concedes that most general election voters haven’t yet paid close attention. The campaign now sees an opportunity to reintroduce their candidate to independents and moderate voters — Hispanics and younger voters, among them — who will ultimately help decide November’s general election. His focus will shift to Obama’s record, his own economic credentials and what aides call “inspirational themes.”
But the stop at Otterbein University highlighted Romney’s challenge: His style on the campaign trail is a study in contrasts.
Romney is almost constantly cracking jokes with the people around him — whether they are governors or college students or his staff. He likes practical jokes and fast food, whether cameras are rolling or not. But he is at other times incredibly disciplined, refusing to take impromptu questions from reporters or wade into difficult subjects unprepared.
He often delivers remarks from a teleprompter — an aid he’s criticized Obama for using — and he rarely displays emotion in public. Campaigning in Puerto Rico last month, he may have been the only person on a crowded stage not dancing.
Indeed, despite the preparation and years of practice, Romney sometimes transmits an awkwardness even in intimate settings.
“Congratulations,” he said in between bites of a hamburger after Otterbein senior Jeff Fabus described his struggle to pay for college.
In more formal remarks to students later in the day, he raised some eyebrows after suggesting that students “take risks” — and even borrow money from their parents — to help improve their economic fortunes by finishing their education.
“This is kind of an American experience,” he said.
But Romney’s story is not typical of most Americans. Romney paid for his graduate education at Harvard University, in part, by selling stock that his father — a former Michigan governor — bought for him, Ann Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994.
Facing intensifying attacks from Democrats, however, Romney has fine-tuned a message to address such criticism, insisting that he will not apologize for his success. Expect that message to continue as he faces new rounds of questions about his business career and continued reluctance to provide more than two years of tax returns.
He may be shifting his focus and delivery, but his broad message has not changed over the last year. He has consistently focused on the economy and his record in the private sector. And while he periodically attacked his Republican opponents on the campaign trail, he usually saved his most heated criticism for Obama.
A memo released by campaign manager Matt Rhoades late last week suggests he’ll continue that tack.
“We now know that only one campaign is going to run on President Obama’s record of the past three-and-a-half years in office — and it’s not the Obama campaign,” Rhoades wrote.
Regardless of his specific message, however, Romney’s delivery at times can seem stiff, even to supporters. He speaks with the measured tone of a former business executive, methodically scanning the audience from side to side. The Otterbein crowd greeted him with a standing ovation but wasn’t inspired to interrupt him again with applause until 27 minutes into the speech.
And he struggled to hold the younger crowd’s attention at times.
The Romney campaign is confident that general election voters will ultimately warm to Romney’s style as they get to know him better, particularly with the help of his wife, Ann.
“I think America’s going to fall in love with Ann Romney,” said senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who last month suggested Romney would handle the transition to the general election like an Etch A Sketch. “I think they’re going to fall in love with Mitt Romney and the entire family.