ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In the strong debate performance that revived his campaign this week, Mitt Romney was many things: authoritative, sharp, commanding, presidential. Two things he was not: warm, and cuddly.
Now, with a month to go before election day, his campaign is making one last push to dismantle the negative caricature that has plagued Romney all year, an effort that is emerging in his campaign appearances.
At a sunset rally in St. Petersburg Friday night, Romney devoted a large chunk of his speech to relating three personal, heartstring-tugging tales of people who have passed away, including an old friend from graduate school, and a soldier in Afghanistan. His most impactful story, though, was of a sick 14-year-old boy, David Oparowski, in his Mormon ward who asked "Brother Romney" to help him write a "will" before he died.
"I went to David’s bedside and got a piece of legal paper, made it look very official," Romney told the audience. "And then David proceeded to tell me what he wanted to give his friends. Talked about his fishing rod, and who would get that. He talked about his skateboard, who’d get that. And his rifle, that went to his brother."
By the time he was finished, Romney had done something he'd never achieved before from the stump: He had gotten people to cry.
The remarks appeared to be a deliberate deviation from Romney's standard, statistics-heavy stump speech; one senior adviser told BuzzFeed the candidate brought notes on stage Friday night, something he rarely does.
The effort to transform Romney's public image from sneering plutocrat to compassionate statesman began in earnest weeks ago, on the final night of the Republican National Convention. It was there that the campaign first brought old family friends (including Oparowski's mother) to the podium to testify of the candidate's kindness; and debuted a moving 10-minute Romney biopic laced with old family videos.
Romney himself later said the primary goal of the convention was not to introduce new policies, but to introduce himself to the country.
"I'm pleased people got to know me better. That's one of the things we hoped to receive from our convention," the candidate told reporters. "Rather than 30-second ads we had much more time to talk to American people."
But those most compelling acts of the convention production took place before the the prime time television broadcast — a misguided programming decision aides later admitted to regretting — which meant that the vast majority of viewers never saw them. So, the campaign has made a concerted effort in recent weeks to take the show on the road, hoping to recreate some of the same magic.
Aside from Romney's own first-person stories — whose effectiveness will depend on using them sparingly, and in the right context — the campaign is relying heavily on the convention video to show supporters Mitt's softer side.
From Ohio, to Colorado, to Virginia, the campaign now plays the 10-minute video at almost every rally before Romney takes the stage, and the impact it has on the crowds is palpable. Silence falls over the rally-goers, and their faces soften as the projector screens fill with old footage of Romney as a young father speaking tenderly to his wife, and letting one of his sons smear frosting on his face.
"The film is effective because in many ways it is a love story," senior strategist Russ Schriefer explained to BuzzFeed. "It's the story of Mitt's love for Ann, his children, and his country. It is the story of a good and decent man who has the experience and the qualities to make a great president. It also shows a side of him that isn't seen on the campaign trail. The vintage footage with his kids is priceless."'
Schriefer said the logic behind playing the film at rallies is simply to "warm up the crowd as an introduction to the governor." But it also appears designed to address the reality that, even among many Republicans, Obama wins the likability contest. One aide told BuzzFeed there have been efforts to slice the video into shorter commercials and air them in swing states — an idea that has proven tough to execute. But in the mean time, they're hoping to extend the reach of the most compelling piece of media they've produced by showing it to their Republican foot soldiers, and letting them spread the word.
Boston's other main tool in shaping Romney's new image is his wife, Ann, who now re-tells the touching stories from the convention at every campaign stop she makes, including at a pre-debate rally in Littleton, Colo. earlier this week.
"I'm grateful that we had the convention, and that there were people that stood up and said, 'I am sick and tired of hearing about Mitt being mischaracterized, I'm gonna stand up and I'm gonna tell you about the person I know," Mrs. Romney said. She then went on to recount the Oparowski story, among others.
Afterward, voters at the Women for Romney rally said they appreciated the glimpse into Mitt's heart.
"What I liked even better was hearing that when he comes home, from being in politics or business, he leaves his hat at the door and rough-houses with his five boys," said Bridget Young, an investor from Denver, adding, "It's good to know he's a human being and not just a cold businessman."
One voter down, millions to go.
With reporting from Zeke Miller.