DENVER, Colo. — Mitt Romney cheerfully meandered back past the blue divider curtain on his campaign jet last Friday carrying a large bag of beef jerky. He doled out the giant hunks of dried meat to reporters one by one, engaging in the kind of innuendo-laced banter common in the back of the plane but widely thought to be absent from the front. At one point, a journalist who received a smaller piece of jerky complained that he had "jerky envy," prompting an outburst of laughter from the candidate.
The exchange raised more than a few eyebrows when it hit Twitter and the blogosphere: Funny, loose, a little racy — who was this guy?
But for Romney's traveling press corps, the jerky party was just the latest in a series of similar casual encounters with the candidate — most of which are joined by reporters on the condition that they are "off the record," meaning nothing the candidate does or says can be reported.
Eager for access to the famously reserved candidate, reporters have generally agreed to the campaign's terms for these "OTRs," which have long been common practice on presidential campaigns. But the resulting interactions — rare, unfettered conversations with an unusually candid Romney — have left many of the traveling campaign reporters frustrated that they're unable capture a side of the candidate that he keeps hidden from public view.
"The OTRs are annoying," said one reporter who covers Romney. "I mean, I'm glad we do them, but it's like, we can't show a side of him that exists."
Reporters pointed to an off-the-record briefing Romney did the day before his speech at the Republican National Convention as a prime example. (This reporter wasn't present, and so is not bound by the off-the-record terms. Other members of the press agreed to speak broadly about their impressions on the condition that they not be named, and would not discuss the substance of what the candidate said.)
With the cameras off and the journalists' notepads a safe distance from their pens, Romney candidly answered questions about his speech preparation, the impact his father's career had on him, and his Massachusetts gubernatorial record. He seemed, reporters said later, like a different person: funnier, more intellectually honest, comfortably dorky, and even prone to introspection.
One senior campaign adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss these off-the-record situations, said that if Romney behaves differently behind the scenes, it's partly because the dynamic with the press is altered.
"Reporters also conduct themselves somewhat differently in off the record settings," the adviser said. "They are more like a dinner conversation and they are equally as expansive as to what their questions are getting at. There's a natural tension that exists with any on the record conversation. It's more of a competition. We try to drive a message and the press scrutinizes it endlessly."
But the yawning gap between Romney's on-the-record and off-the-record personas also provides an explanation for why the candidate always seems so uncomfortable in public. Indeed, no one knows better than the candidate's traveling press corps that as soon as the red light blinks on, Romney transforms into a halting, hyper-cautious talking-point-dispenser whose defining rhetorical characteristic is an ongoing preoccupation with self-censorship.
Like a Mormon Larry David, Romney seems acutely aware of how his publicly spoken words can be misinterpreted — and determined to set the record straight, often in real time.
Last March, for example, while speaking to a group of Louisianans about Dodd-Frank, Romney caught himself accidentally using the word "y'all" — a colloquialism that had drawn charges of pandering when he employed it in Alabama a couple weeks earlier.
"You don't think it affects y'all on a —," he said, before pausing and then correcting himself. "You all on a direct basis."
Then, looking down at the podium for a moment, Romney decided to clarify: "I mean 'you all.' I'm not trying to pretend like I'm from Louisiana."
More recently, Romney demonstrated his sensitivity to being taken out of context during a causal, but on-the-record, trip to the back of the campaign plane to wish New York Times reporter Ashley Parker a happy birthday. When Parker requested that he answer a policy question as her birthday gift, Romney laughingly exclaimed, "Oh, not a prayer!"
Then, he hastily acknowledged how the response could be interpreted: "That's going to be a DNC ad."
One Romney adviser acknowledged this habit, and said it helps explain why the candidate is so much less easy-going in public. But he added that Romney has good reason to be cautious, and accused some in the media of seizing on the even the most inconsequential misstatements to cast him as weird, out of touch, or otherwise awkward.
"But I think that's true of a lot of guys that become candidates," said the adviser. "You're used to talking to people you work with in business or whatever... and suddenly everything you say is being scrutinized."
He added, "I think he's very careful."