JANESVILLE, Wis. >> Mitt Romney’s English is direct and to the point, useful for attacking President Barack Obama on the stump or dismantling his Republican opponents in primary debates. He is even fluent in French. But the one language Romney doesn’t seem to speak is small talk.
Over a five-day “Every Town Counts” bus tour through six swing states that is scheduled to wrap up on Tuesday, Romney’s attempts at banter were on sometimes painful display as he toured a factory floor in Wisconsin; scooped chocolate chip ice cream in Milford, N.H.; and served pancakes at a Father’s Day breakfast in Brunswick, Ohio.
At the breakfast, Romney introduced two of his sons, Matt and Craig, in a slightly unusual fashion.
“I love them,” Romney said. “I love them like they’re my own. And they are! Craig!”
With that, Craig Romney rescued the microphone from his father.
The bus trip was perhaps Romney’s deepest plunge into retail politics since the primaries, when he delighted his traveling press corps by guessing voters’ ages and ethnicities (often incorrectly) and proving himself a gaffe-prone jokester.
Romney joins a long list of presidential candidates who sometimes struggled with the basics of presidential campaigning. Former President George W. Bush was a fumbling and at times hilariously clumsy orator, so much so that entire books were devoted to his malapropisms. Al Gore was so stilted in 2000 that his campaign, trying to warm him up, paid the feminist writer Naomi Wolf for sartorial advice: earth tones for the man who wrote “Earth in the Balance.”
The Romney who emerged over this recent tour still came across as goofily old-fashioned, but he was also more polished on the stump, able to improvise and riff and better handle the surprises that naturally accompany a rambling motorcade through the heartland.
As Romney’s traveling press secretary, Rick Gorka, said before the buses set off, “Welcome to Day 1 of summer camp!”
WAWA, NO ‘S’
At a Wawa, one in a convenience store chain in the mid-Atlantic, Romney was dazzled by the touch-screen computers from which he ordered his meatball hoagie on Saturday in Quakertown, Pa. Later that day, he tried to engage the crowd in Cornwall, Pa., by asking it about its favorite local sandwich shop.
“By the way, where do you get your hoagies here?” he asked. “Do you get them at Wawas? Is that where you get them? No? Do you get them at Sheetz? Where do you get them?”
As the crowd began to boo, shouting out names of neighborhood joints, Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania tried to help out: “Delis!” he called out. “The delis!”
But after bungling the name of the Wawa several times — calling the store “Wawas” — Romney forged ahead.
“Ah, you get them at the delis, is that what you’re saying?” he asked. “Well, I went to a place today called Wawas. You ever been to Wawas? Anybody been there?”
As the crowd continued to jeer, he added, “I’m sorry, I know there’s a very big state divide.”
The next day, Romney appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” where he briefly talked about the expensive dressage horses his wife, Ann, owns and rides — a subject that clashes with his attempt to present himself as an average guy who understands the concerns of middle-class Americans.
“I joke that I’m going to send her to Betty Ford for addiction to horses,” he told Bob Schieffer, the show’s host.
CLOUDS, THEN SUN
The bus tour was also full of sunny moments — literally.
At his pancake breakfast stop, more than a thousand people braved the stormy weather, lining up hours in advance with their umbrellas and waterproof trash bags for protection. Thunder clapped periodically, but when Romney finally took the stage, the rain slowed to a light spit and the sun crested, prompting him to reflect on the improving weather.
“But it looks like the sun is coming out, and I think that’s a metaphor for the country,” he said. “The sun is coming out, guys! Three and a half years of dark clouds are about to part. It’s about to get a little warmer around this country, a little brighter.”
Throughout the tour, protesters tried to bring their own storm clouds. In Pennsylvania, about 100 protesters — including former Gov. Edward G. Rendell — descended on a Wawa store that Romney had intended to visit, prompting him to stop at a different one. And in Ohio, a group chanting “Romney go home!” and “We are the 99 percent!” grew so loud and persistent that staff members dragged over two large speakers to try to drown it out.
But Ohio also brought its share of pleasant surprises. When Romney’s motorcade pulled up to a local burger joint in downtown Troy, the candidate was delighted to find a baby blue 1961 Rambler on display outside.
The car belonged to Michael Scheib, 20, who worked behind the counter, and Romney could barely contain his excitement. After greeting voters inside the restaurant, he dashed outside, and he and Scheib hopped in the car, marveling at the interior and even honking the horn.
Afterward, Scheib showed Romney the original brochure that came with the Rambler and spread it out on the hood. Pointing to a brochure picture of his father, George Romney, who led American Motors, which manufactured the Rambler, Romney said: “And here’s the guy who made them, up there — that’s my dad. Isn’t that something? My dad did that. Isn’t that something?”
Turning to Scheib, he concluded: “Pretty cool car. Congratulations.”