Romney's Morbid New Stump Speech

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Trying to better relate to voters, he's "gotten personal" in recent weeks -- and that means talking about death. A lot.

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LEESBURG, Va. -- Mitt Romney's speeches start out upbeat. He thanks the crowd. He bashes the president a bit. He talks about his five-point jobs plan. And then the deaths begin.

There is the story about his old friend from Harvard who became a quadriplegic but soldiered on bravely through life. "God bless you, Billy," Romney said to him one day, only to find out the next day that the man had died.

There is the story about the leukemia-stricken 14-year-old member of his church who called "Brother Romney" to his hospital deathbed, asking Romney to write out a will as he decided who would get his fishing pole, his skateboard, his rifle. And then he died.

There is the one about the woman he met at the Republican convention, whose husband was a sharpshooter in Afghanistan. She was packing a box of birthday presents to send to him overseas when a knock came on her door, and she learned he had been killed.

There is the story about the Colorado Boy Scout troop who bought a special flag and had it flown over the state and national capitols. Then they got NASA to take it on the space shuttle. The boys watched as the rocket with their flag aboard lifted off the launch pad. And then it blew up, killing everyone aboard.

These stories, in various combinations, are a regular feature of Romney's new stump speech, revamped since the first presidential debate in order to create more of a personal connection with his audiences. They're also kind of a bummer. They suck the energy out of his revved-up crowds. As the Washington Examiner's Byron York observed at a rally in Lebanon, Ohio, last week, where Romney told three of the morbid tales (quadriplegic, sharpshooter, space shuttle) in quick succession:

One could feel the puzzlement of the crowd grow with each sad tale, its spirits sinking. This was a political rally. Why wasn't Romney talking about how bad Barack Obama is and how the only way things will get better is if Mitt Romney is elected president? That's what people came to hear.

At the rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Romney launched this new personality offensive, he went with quadriplegic, sharpshooter, and leukemia. "By the time he was finished," Buzzfeed's McKay Coppins observed, "Romney had done something he'd never achieved before from the stump: He had gotten people to cry."

Why is he doing this? Is sadness really the mood you want at a campaign rally? According to the New York Times:

An adviser said that Mr. Romney decided on his own that he wanted to tell those stories onstage. But the move was also couched in a broader campaign strategy to encourage Mr. Romney to reveal a more caring, personal side of himself, a counter to his reputation as a data-driven technocrat.

The stories also tend to end on an uplifting note, as Romney inevitably concludes they taught him something about the indomitability of the American spirit. But they remain jarring, and it always takes some doing for Romney to return the crowd to its ebullient former state.

On Wednesday, Romney's festive outdoor rally in this Northern Virginia town happened to be in a park next to a graveyard. I braced myself for the inevitable stretch of downer anecdotes. But maybe Romney has decided to dial them back -- he told just one of the stories, the one about the space shuttle and the Boy Scouts. It is a long, detail-laden tale that takes up three full minutes of Romney's 20-minute speech. The tragic part comes like a sucker punch, with no warning:

There was a Formica table in the front of the gymnasium, and I was seated at the end of the Formica table, next to the American flag. And the person who was speaking at the podium was the scoutmaster from Monument, Colorado, and he told a story about their flag. Their Boy Scout troop had decided to have a very special American flag, and they bought one with gold tassels around it. Then they had it flown in unusual places. They had it flown above the Capitol dome, and then, when it came home, the boys said, 'Look, we'd also like to have it flown on the space shuttle.' They contacted NASA and said, 'Will you take our flag on the space shuttle?' Now, space is at a premium in space. They're not likely to take souvenirs from everybody across America. But they agreed! They said, 'Yeah, we'll take that flag from your Boy Scout troop.' And so it went on the space shuttle. He said, 'You can imagine how proud the boys were, looking from their homerooms in school, watching the TV set as they watched the shuttle launch with great pride.' And then they saw it explode on the TV screen before their eyes.

"Ohhhh," the audience gasped.

The scouts' flag is eventually found, in pristine condition, among the rubble. When Romney touched that flag, he says, he felt a shiver of electricity go up his arm at the thought of the astronauts' sacrifice: "their love for learning, their willingness to pioneer for us, the discoveries they made that our lives might be more enjoyable and full."

Hesitantly at first, the audience cheered again, and Romney moved on to happier thoughts. Tonight at least, there would be no tears.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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