Thomas Fitzgerald: Off script and off-key

From trees to Cadillacs, Romney still struggling with the common touch.

DETROIT - Mitt Romney finished his prepared remarks on the economy with no damage done, save the TV cutaway shots showing thousands of empty blue seats at Ford Field. Then he decided to show he was a regular "car guy" like many of the business leaders in the audience spread before him on the Detroit Lions' 30-yard line.

"I love this country. Actually, I love this state," Romney said, referring to the place of his birth. "This feels good, being back in Michigan. You know, the trees are the right height. The streets are just right. I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles. I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually."

Romney's recent Goldilocks routine - trees the right height? - was just baffling. He used the line several times in the days leading up to Michigan's primary, and nobody could quite figure out what he meant. Maybe President Obama's stimulus program shortchanged the state in tree nutrition.

The real problem was that in referring to his wife's two Cadillac SUVs, priced between $35,000 and $49,000, Romney drew more unwanted attention to his vast personal wealth and reinforced the notion he is out of touch with working-class Americans.

From a guy so carefully scripted, Romney's off-the-cuff remarks have often been jarring reminders of his $250 million net worth, and his past as chief executive of the private-equity firm Bain Capital.

Two days after Cadillac-gate, Romney created another cringe-worthy moment for YouTube as he greeted drivers and crews at the Daytona 500. Admitting he did not follow auto racing closely, he added: "I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners." So much for wooing the "Bubba" vote.

Network exit polls from Michigan's Feb. 28 primary, which Romney carried 41 percent to 38 percent, found a class divide that has nagged Romney throughout the Republican presidential nominating campaign. He won among voters who attended at least some college and those making more than $100,000 a year. But he lost among those with no college and those making less than six figures.

Some GOP strategists fret that Romney's troubles with white working-class voters could presage problems if he's the nominee. After all, one of the party's political advantages in the general-election campaign is that the cool and professorial Obama has had his own difficulty connecting with white working-class voters; during the 2008 primaries, he famously spoke of small-town Pennsylvanians who "cling to guns or religion."

Could Romney negate that edge? Consider:

Campaigning in New Hampshire in early January, Romney said: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." His GOP opponents and Democrats howled that it showed he was a heartless vulture capitalist, though he was making a reasonable point that consumers benefit when free markets give them choices.

"I'm also unemployed," Romney joked last June to a group of out-of-work Florida voters in a Tampa coffee shop. His audience laughed, but the crack struck many as insensitive.

Last August, a heckler interrupted Romney at the Iowa State Fair, bellowing that he should support raising taxes on corporations. "Corporations are people, my friend," he said. His point - that company profits pay shareholders and workers - has mostly been lost.

And in a December GOP candidates' debate in Iowa, Romney got perturbed when then-rival Rick Perry, the Texas governor, challenged his truthfulness on health care.

"Rick, I'll tell you what: $10,000?" Romney said, reaching his hand out to Perry. "$10,000 bet?"

For a while, Romney resisted pressure to release his tax returns, but in January he put out returns for 2010 and estimates for 2011. He paid an effective 14 percent tax rate on millions in earnings (mostly from investments) in those years. "I get speaker's fees from time to time, but not very much," Romney said at the time. The chump change turned out to be $374,000.

These gaffes, of course, will not matter if voters decide Romney is the expert with the right fix for America's economic problems. In tough times, it seems that fewer people care about "having a beer" with their president and more about results.

And Romney may improve at revealing his softer side. When a questioner at an Ohio town hall last week urged him to show "his heart," Romney spoke movingly about his love for his wife ("her happiness is my happiness"), his role as a lay minister in the Mormon Church, and how his love for the American people is an extension of his love for his family.

"This is a family crisis going on in America, and I think I can help," he said.

If all else fails, Ann Romney suggested another course during a tea party rally just before the Michigan vote. "Maybe," she joked, "I should just do all the talking and let him just stand there and watch me."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"