Hey voters, it's nice-guy Mitt Romney

It's bad to be rich and out of touch, but being seen as stiff and dull is worse

Sensitivity may not be the strong suit of Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger in the US presidential derby, and he is perhaps not the best student of campaign history.

Doesn't he remember the grief given to John Kerry, the Democratic candidate in 2004, when he was caught kite-surfing off the coast of Massachusetts? Out of touch, elitist, snob, his critics cried. He went on to lose.

In the parlance of election punditry, Kerry was guilty of awful optics. It may be a Massachusetts thing. Kerry is a senator from the state and Romney is a former governor.

No one was more hurt by a single image than Michael Dukakis, also a former Massachusetts governor, who attracted ridicule as the 1988 Democrat nominee when he posed for the cameras in a tank with an oversized helmet and just looked goofy.

Yesterday, Romney and members of his family marched in a Fourth of July parade in the summer resort of Wolfeboro on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

Americans love Independence Day parades. But it is the other newsreels from New Hampshire that at first glimpse seem to jar. As most Americans cut back on holiday plans, Romney has been having a very nice time in his US$8 million ($10 million) 5.2ha estate on the lake, taking his jet skis out from the boathouse (valued at US$630,000) and leading the grandkids on treasure hunts.

Has his campaign got careless? Or is this meticulously calculated?

Romney is hardly the first candidate with money. But you would think that he would have some tact. During the primary campaign this year he famously dropped clangers like noting in Detroit that his wife, Ann, had a "couple of Cadillacs" and saying at a Florida speedway track that he didn't follow racing but had a few friends who own teams.

Meanwhile, there is family pride in the equestrian success of Ann Romney, who was encouraged by her doctors to take up riding in 1998 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She has bought horses since then, and very expensive ones, too. One, named Rafalca, will be competing in the London Olympics dressage events. How many voters even know what dressage is?

Neighbours in the upmarket La Jolla suburb of San Diego have been grumbling about Romney's planned additions to the beachfront home he owns there; they include installing a lift for his cars.

But the risk of being called out of touch with ordinary folk does not only stem from money, it's also about lifestyle. When it comes to the rituals of summer, the Romney clan does not behave like the rest of us.

We know some of the details, thanks to the Washington Post. Attendance at the annual summer retreat at the Lake Winnipesaukee house is obligatory for all; none of his five sons - or their wives and kids - can duck out. While they are there, the adults are conscripted to take part in the "Romney Olympics", a highly competitive series of races and tests that include swimming, biking, hanging on to poles (endurance) and even hammering nails into planks of wood.

But keeping the press away from Lake Winnipesaukee is not what the campaign has been doing this week. On the contrary, it seemingly fed the "Romney Olympic" details to the Post even supplying one of the sons, Tagg Romney, for an interview. It made no attempt to keep reporters at bay or repel the paparazzi who snapped the candidate clinging to his wife on a jet ski and grinning madly.

Carelessness, on closer inspection, this is not. The voters know Romney has money. Indeed, his success as a businessman, as founder of the private-equity firm Bain Capital, lies behind his central campaign promise, to be a better steward of the economy than President Barack Obama.

"Everyone knows he is wealthy," said Professor Larry Sabato, director of political studies at the University of Virginia, adding that Democrats should be wary of trying to make a Kerry moment out of one jet ski outing.

Obama has taken holidays on Martha's Vineyard.

If being rich is not such a problem, being impenetrably stiff is. So this is really what Romney's Fourth of July optics are about. They are clearly aimed at overcoming what might be called his "human deficit".

The campaign wants voters to see the father, grandfather and family man. Everyone and everything else in the news bulletins are props and extras in this push to make the candidate Mr Nice Guy.

Says Sabato: "They are trying to increase his likeability quotient and to make him look less like an automaton."

Whether anyone buys these Independence Day goods is another question.

But Sabato said that by tomorrow it won't matter. That is when the latest monthly unemployment rate will come out.

Who needs reminding that it is the economic data that will determine this election? "That number," Sabato said, "will mean 1000 times more than pictures of Romney on a jet ski."

- Independent

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