Jim Cole, Associated Press
In this Dec. 12, 2011, photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop with mill workers at the Madison Lumber Mill in Madison, N.H.
What impressed me was that we're all the same in the things we aspire for, the things we love.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney is starting to open up.

For the past year, the former Massachusetts governor has emphasized his business background as he's argued that he should be president because he understands the economy and can fix it to help millions of out-of-work Americans. Yet Romney, a multimillionaire many times over whom critics call robotic, has struggled to connect with average people.

Now, he's trying to show people he personally understands what hardship is like by drawing on anecdotes from his upbringing — funny, revealing and sometimes slightly awkward stories — in hopes they will humanize him while providing a contrast with the rocky past of his chief rival, Newt Gingrich.

There's the one about how he proposed to his girlfriend in the back seat of his parents' car after he came back from his Mormon mission in France. "I said, 'You want to get married?' She said, 'Yeah!'" Romney said, smiling.

He's also opened up about counseling fellow Mormons who were having financial trouble. "What impressed me," he said, "was that we're all the same in the things we aspire for, the things we love."

He even told a group of New Hampshire voters about using a crude toilet while he traveled in France for his church. "There was a chain behind you with kind of a bucket, a bucket affair," he said. "I had not experienced one of those in the United States."

All told, the shared memories hammer home a point that he's tried to make in debates and on TV and repeatedly on the campaign trail.

"I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy," he said during a debate in Michigan, a line his campaign team used in a commercial that's now running in Iowa. "Let me tell you this: If I'm president of the United States, I will be true to my family, to my faith and to our country."

Romney doesn't say it out loud, but his family and his faith are two direct contrasts with Gingrich. The former House speaker has been married three times and has acknowledged infidelities in both previous marriages. A longtime Southern Baptist, Gingrich converted to Catholicism in 2009.

Romney is relying more and more on his family — especially in Iowa, where social conservatives hold sway — to help him make his case with voters. His wife, Ann Romney, has spent more time in Iowa in the past week than her husband, telling audiences in West Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Council Bluffs about how her husband stood by her through a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

"He is there, he is steadfast, you can count on him," Ann Romney said during one campaign stop. "He won't abandon you in the hardest times."

And Romney's son Josh has also campaigned here, readily showing off photos of his own family and telling stories about growing up with dad.

Perhaps more telling, Romney is talking more openly about his faith. His Mormon religion caused problems with many evangelical and conservative Christian voters during his 2008 presidential campaign. And while Romney gave a major speech on religion during that bid, critics say he never did enough to explain the Mormon church to people who don't understand it.

Now, little by little, he's explaining it.

During a stop in Hudson, N.H., on Sunday, he talked about how Mormon missionaries get paid very little and live among local hosts as young men and women in the church. On Monday, he told workers at a New Hampshire lumber mill how he became a pastor even though he was an English major looking to go to law school and business school.

"Well, in my church that sort of rotates around," he said. "They ask different people to do it, and you take the assignment for a while."

Later, Romney insisted to reporters that his campaign hadn't made a strategic decision to have him open up more.

"I just respond to the questions as they come, and the question that got asked today was about, was the same question I got asked in the debate, so I gave the same answer," he said.

But the pitch he's started to make is one that combines his business background with his own personal and religious background — and looks ahead to a general election that's likely to be a struggle over which party can better defend America's middle class.