MASON CITY, Iowa — Dressed in jeans, shirt sleeves rolled up, Mitt Romney reminisced before a noontime crowd about the long car trips his family took when he was a boy. "My dad made Ramblers, so we had one," the Republican presidential hopeful said.
In fact, Romney's father didn't just make cars. He was chairman and president of American Motors, the company that made Ramblers, and a highly successful businessman before he entered politics. It's a detail the son omitted as he sought to establish a bond with Iowans he hopes will support him in next week's presidential caucuses.
An oversight, perhaps — he sometimes mentions George Romney's titles — but Romney's effort to come across as a man of the people has been anything but a smooth transition.
One woman recently told him that she had to endure a five-hour commute to work because her company moved out of state. How could he help keep good jobs in Iowa, she asked.
"Sometimes it's counterintuitive," replied Romney, a former businessman, explaining that businesses often invent new, more efficient ways to compete.
"The term is called productivity. Output per person," he said. "Our productivity equals our income."
In the final stretch of the Iowa caucus campaign, Romney has stepped out from behind the curtain of private fundraising events that for months shielded him from unscripted encounters with voters.
During two bus tours through Iowa and New Hampshire, he has overhauled his campaign style. He has done interview after interview. He's knocked on doors and spent hours taking questions from voters in town hall meetings.
His wife, Ann, introduces him at almost every stop, as she did in Mason City on Thursday when she said, "It was Mitt who brought me through my darkest hour" — an apparent reference to how her husband stood by her through a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
She's sat next to him during TV interviews. In a rare display of public emotion, Romney's voice nearly caught as he talked about her struggle with MS on a Sunday news show.
"We're finding that as we run ads that talk about our personal background, our personal beliefs, that that increased support for my campaign," he told reporters who followed his New Hampshire bus tour the week before Christmas. He was explaining his latest TV ads in Iowa — one highlighted his background as a man of "steadiness and constancy," the other featured his wife talking directly to the camera about his character.
Yet he can still struggle to connect with people on a personal level.
When one retired firefighter in New Hampshire said he was drawing a reduced Social Security check because he also had a state pension, the former Massachusetts governor was less than sympathetic. "If there's a competition for who will give you the most free stuff, go vote for that guy."
When the man said he wasn't asking for any handouts, Romney said, "You knew what you were getting into. ... I wish you well, but I'm not going to promise you more bucks."
He's not always distant. At an earlier stop in New Hampshire, Romney explained how he lived on a careful budget as a Mormon missionary, using crude toilets and living in modest apartments. He also talked about his time as a lay pastor in Boston's Mormon church, when he says he counseled struggling families.
"When people don't have a job and they don't feel like they're contributing to the betterment of their family and their future, they get pretty depressed," he told the crowd. "Being out of work for a long time is real tough and it's not the fault of the person's that out of work."
When a voter in Bethlehem, N.H., asked him how her elderly friends would get through the winter with the price of heating fuel so high, Romney didn't hesitate.
"You're finding throughout this country that it's harder and harder on middle-income families," he said. "The costs of oil, the costs of food, and health care have all gone up."
But when he's trying to connect one-on-one, he sometimes hits notes that sound jarring.
As he stood at the cash register at a Concord, N.H., toy store, picking up a few gifts for charity, a patron asked him what he gave his family for Christmas. Earlier in the day, he had bought his wife a $285 North Face jacket as a gift, he said.
For his sons?
"We sent them checks," said Romney, a multimillionaire. "Cash is always good."
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