Romney's Inner Geek Comes Out

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Mike Segar / Reuters

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at a campaign rally in Sweetwater, Florida, Jan. 27, 2008

Mitt Romney's mind is a marvel — a calculating, evaluating, inquisitive, all-consuming consulting machine, formed on his CEO-father's lap, trained in Harvard's business and law schools, and perfected while making hundreds of millions in the cutthroat world of private equity investing. There is not a spreadsheet that does not pique his interest, not a bureaucracy he does not itch to streamline, not a widget factory he does not wish to understand.

"I'm so excited to see this product!" he exclaimed Saturday in Lutz, Florida, outside of Tampa, while visiting a company called Opinicus, which makes "Level D" flight simulators.

"I don't think I have seen a more impressive layout at a facility, and I have seen some extraordinary facilities," he gushed a few hours earlier, after touring a coupon-making ValPak plant in Largo.

"Unfortunately, the utensils are not as hard as they need to be," he said over lunch at KFC, where the cholesterol-soaked skin of his fried chicken was overwhelming his plastic knife and fork.

This is the real Romney, the man behind the millions of dollars in television advertising and over-bland messaging. Unfortunately for him, it is a person who the candidate has hidden for much of the campaign, as he tried to present himself not as the person he is, but the product he thought he should be. Thanks to that miscalculation, voters in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire were bombarded with television ads and direct mail about "strength" and "optimism," his distain for illegal immigration and the three-legged stool of the conservative coalition he only joined in the last few years. His long jaw and his toothy smile ruled the airwaves. He attacked his opponents with abandon.

In each of those contests, Republican voters saw through the façade, and chose two candidates — Mike Huckabee and John McCain — who were running more as real people, not just poll-tested productions. But as the days tick down to Florida's Tuesday vote, with Romney in a tight race with John McCain to win the state, there is evidence that he has learned some lessons. The initial product launch failed, so he has recreated himself as something not so far from the person he actually is — a nerd, who knows how to handle money and make things work.

"I spent my life doing what you are doing, working in the real economy," he told the ValPak workers in Largo. "I understand something about jobs because I had jobs." Behind him hung a bunch of messages on signs that he debuted after his first loss in Iowa: "Economic Turnaround" said one. "Washington Is Broken," said another.

This new Romney loves talking about the same thing that the real Romney loves talking about: how to maximize economic theory, improve trade, write off capital expenditures and make more money for everyone. He will speak lovingly about circuit board innovations, and fiber optic technology, and health care policy — rather than gay marriage or abortion. He will speak about numbers and statistics in a way that connects with an audience, not because he is interesting, but because no one can doubt that he knows his stuff. In Michigan, it was a convincing act that brought him victory, along with his family name and his pandering promise to restore the dying auto industry.

At the same time, as he criss-crosses Florida, Romney has allowed his inner dweeb to surface. Perhaps from exhaustion, he is given to say whatever comes into his head, even if the surprising candor betrays a man who would be laughed out of any bar in most American cities. "Who let the dogs out? Hoo hoo," he rapped last week in Jacksonville, while posing for a photo with a group of black teenagers. "Hey buddy! How's it going? What's happening? You got some bling bling here!"

On Sunday, in Sweetwater, the Mormon candidate who has been married to the same woman for almost forty years found himself trying to explain the appeal of Florida's sun-soaked fairer sex. "Why are there so many beautiful women here? I haven't figured this out," Romney said, innocently enough. "Cuban American women are gorgeous."

If you talk to any other Republican campaign about Romney, you will hear a mixture of venom and mocking disdain. The McCain and Huckabee camps, especially, really can't stand the guy; that much was clear this weekend when McCain tried his hardest to steer the conversation back from the economy to national security by claiming, without any real evidence, that Romney supported a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. They are envious of his near-bottomless bank account, revolted by his hard-nosed attacks and turned off by his chameleon-like handling of the issues. They interpret his hokey demeanor and polished presentation as a fundamental lack of character. And they are right that Romney has behaved poorly, and offered real reasons for voters to be suspicious of his convictions. But they are wrong to think he lacks a solid core.

Romney is, at heart, the geeky consultant he spent his life becoming. He is a salesman and a number-cruncher, a goofball and a social stiff. He literally will talk about humor as something that can be decided upon in the boardroom. "We had a team of people, several teams who came together and said, 'What do we want to have as part of our corporate culture, our enterprise culture?' " he explained Saturday of his effort to save the Salt Lake City Olympics. "And one of the rules we had was we were going to have fun. And the first rule was every meeting had to begin with a joke. And it took some work to find jokes."

That's Mitt Romney. The guy who has to work to find jokes, in the same way he works to decide if an investment is worth the risk. He's the guy who uses phrases like "enterprise culture" as if they meant something. And the thing is, the real Mitt Romney is actually a likable guy, and maybe even an electable one in a nation nervous about the possibility of a looming recession. But for that to happen, Romney is going to have to show a degree of courage he has mostly lacked this campaign cycle. He is going to have to stop worrying about who he should be, and just continue to be the guy he really is.