Mitt Romney's Weirdness

At a campaign stop in Tampa today, Mitt Romney stepped in it a little bit:

Mitt Romney sat at the head of the table at a coffee shop here on Thursday, listening to a group of unemployed Floridians explain the challenges of looking for work. When they finished, he weighed in with a predicament of his own."

"I should tell my story," Mr. Romney said. "I'm also unemployed."
Having a guy worth between $190 million and $250 million (according to campaign disclosures) joke about his unemployment status with people who lack not only jobs but also Romney's means, seems rather cruel. But I'm certain Romney mean nothing by it, and I doubt he even realized what he'd done.

To spend time with Romney on the campaign trail (which I did earlier this week) is to be struck by and the growing disparity between the formal candidate--the guy who debates and gives speeches, and who has noticeably improved in this regard since the last time he ran for president--and the informal one, whose awkwardness is a thing to behold. Dana Milbank, who also followed Romney in New Hampshire, wrote a devastating (and accurate) column on this latter Romney on Tuesday:
In formal settings -- news conferences, or Monday night's debate -- Romney is confident and competent. But in casual moments, such as Tuesday morning's retail politics in New Hampshire, his weirdness comes through -- equal parts "Leave It to Beaver" corniness and social awkwardness.

He greets a man perusing shelves of a hardware store: "Shopping here today?"

He notes the lack of "guy waitresses" at a diner and says of the long skirts worn by the middle-aged wait staff: "Oh, this is the Hooters equivalent."

He talks about the weak economy with the proprietors of a feed shop, then abruptly pivots: "Okay, so what do you do about mosquito control? . . . This has been a mosquito-infested year with all the moisture. They flew away with my dog."

The broader media is starting to pick up on this, and it looks as though Romney's weirdness is becoming something of a running narrative, even while the "formal" Romney draws praise from the likes of me for his improvement. I can't fathom what Romney could do to fix this problem: it's intrinsic. 

Watching these awkward exchanges is excruciating, but it also gives you a sense of how badly Romney must want to be president. Painful as it is, he doesn't flinch, and keeps marching along to the next voter. You do wonder, though, if this could rise to the level of a political problem for him. Former Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat, pretty much had presidential hopes extinguished after word began to spread of some of his weirder habits, like logging every mundane thing in his daily life in a little notebook that he carried around with him. This line in the Times piece about Romney signals that just such a narrative is taking hold: 

The references to Mr. Romney's own unemployment status added yet another humorous, but occasionally awkward, moment to his ever-growing catalog of off-the-cuff remarks that he makes as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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