IRMO, South Carolina--When Mitt Romney took the stage here Wednesday night, he didn't start his address with promises to repair the economy or restore American greatness. He'd get there eventually, but first he had a story to tell--about how he met his "sweetie."
"She and I went to the same elementary school," he explained, gesturing toward his wife of 42 years, Ann. "But she was in second grade when I was in fourth grade so I didn't pay a lot of attention."
It wasn't until she was 15 that she caught his eye. The two were at a party in the Detroit suburb where they grew up -- his father was a leading citizen, her father was mayor -- and he convinced her date to let him drive her home. The other guy consented and, Mitt proudly declared, "We've been going steady ever since!"
The recollection turns Romney into a boyish, flirtatious, and slightly awkward presence. Ann, he announced Wednesday, "is one very attractive grandmother.”
The couple has been telling versions of this story from the stump for almost two decades now, and it's come in particularly handy here in South Carolina, where religious voters tend to rank family values high on their list of priorities. As Newt Gingrich braces for ABC News to air what promises to be a juicy interview with his ex-wife, don't expect the Romneys to stop telling their decidedly wholesome "how we met" story anytime soon.
Indeed, over the course of his political career, Romney-watchers have learned quite a bit about the couple's high school sweetheart days. Their first "real date," for example, was his senior prom, for which he picked her up in an AMC Marlin. He was "very romantic," she says. "I was pretty nervous," he confesses. And on the way home, wouldn't you know it, but they ran out of gas!
On its surface, the anecdote seems like it's tailor-made for stump speech fodder--endearing, humanizing, and evocative of a bygone era of teenage dating before sexting. But successfully relating this story--and others from the couple's early courtship--has sometimes proved politically tricky.
In 1994, when he was running for Senate in Massachusetts, Romney made every effort to contrast his own personal life with that of the scandal-plagued incumbent.
"Mitt Romney is the dream candidate to run against someone like Ted Kennedy," Boston-based polster Gerry Chervinsky said at the time. [[http://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/25/us/the-1994-campaign-massachusetts-perfect-anti-kennedy-opposes-the-senator.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm]] "He has a pretty blond wife, and five kids. He doesn't smoke and he drinks milk. He's the perfect anti-Kennedy."
And yet, as it turned out, Massachusetts voters hadn't tired of a man Romney's allies cast as a boozy womanizer -- and many even found charm, and humanity, in Kennedy's flaws. Romney's "Leave It To Beaver" schtick, on the other hand, was cloying: unrelatable at best, insincere at worst.
Romney ran into the same problem during his 2002 gubernatorial bid, when his campaign released a commercial (above) that featured Mitt and Ann talking about their frist date in a goofy sort of aw-shucks earnestness. Set to a soundtrack of sentimental piano music, the ad looked like it belonged on the Christian Broadcasting Network. According to the Boston Globe, it flopped in focus groups and was quickly yanked from the airwaves.
But while Mitt and Ann's '50s romance may not have done much for flinty secularists in New England, it certainly found an audience here. After the event, Ronald Beaton, a resident of Columbia, S.C., said he identified with Romney's personal story.
"I've got my own beautiful blond wife of 42 years right here," he said, putting his arm around the woman standing next to him. "I think it's supreme!"
"Yeah," his wife, Myrna, quipped. "I'm the only one who would take him!"
Beaton said he once met Romney and told him that if the candidate was "too perfect" because of his pristine marital history, then so was he. "I got him to sign my book before he left," Beaton said. "And you know what he wrote? 'To Ronald, who's 'too perfect.'"