FRANKENMUTH, Mich. (AP) — The personal stories were slightly awkward. The small-town events tended toward the corny. His chats with voters were usually just a few words. But as Mitt Romney campaigned across six states, he loosened up a little — and avoided the verbal gaffes that had plagued him in the past.
“Pie time!” Romney exclaimed as he walked behind the counter at Sweetie-licious Bakery Cafe in DeWitt, Mich. A rolling pin and lump of pie dough waiting, he rejected the bright pink apron the store’s proprietor tried to give him. He spotted a red apron and tied it around his waist. “Pink aprons I don’t do,” he said.
The likely Republican presidential nominee was near the end of a five-day bus tour through small towns and cities. The itinerary included a series of stops at local establishments like the bakery — in Ohio, it was K’s Hamburger, while in Pennsylvania, it was a Wawa convenience store. There were visits to factories and warehouses, the types of places that had become standard Romney venues.
Romney asked persistent questions of the owners as he toured business facilities — often companies that earn money making everyday products in a new or better way. The former venture capitalist clearly preferred the factory tours and roundtables with business leaders, interacting with them easily.
“Are you selling retail at all?” he asked the proprietor of the fabric factory he toured Monday morning in Wisconsin. Monterey Mills says it’s the largest manufacturer of paint rollers in the U.S. and supplies the fluff that’s used for Disney stuffed animals. Romney was trying to figure out if the business sells only to other businesses or to consumers as well.
And on Tuesday morning, he spent nearly 40 minutes chatting with small-business owners in Frankenmuth, a resort town that depends heavily on tourism to drive its economy.
His speech to the rally waiting outside of the Bavarian Lodge Inn, by contrast, was much shorter. And he opened with what was intended as a heartwarming story about a photo of him visiting the town as a teenager. “Someone was telling something very funny, my dad’s laughing uproariously,” he told the crowd. “But I was really — I’d lost it, was completely guffawing in this picture.”
The crowd laughed — a little.
Romney’s off-the-cuff attempts to connect have occasionally been a source of trouble. At a speech at Michigan’s Ford Field during the primary, he said his wife, Ann, drove “a couple of Cadillacs,” a remark his adversaries used to promote their view that he’s out of touch with average Americans. Approached by a reporter at the Daytona 500 and asked about NASCAR, Romney said he didn’t know too much about the sport but that he had several friends who were NASCAR team owners — more evidence for the out-of-touch argument.
His bus tour wasn’t totally free of awkward moments, though he steered clear of substantive mistakes. On his tour’s second day, he stopped to visit a Wawa convenience store — an eastern Pennsylvania chain that maintains a healthy rivalry with competitor Sheetz, a popular chain on the western side of the state.
“By the way, where do you get your hoagies here?” Romney asked the crowd in Cornwall, Pa., near the state’s geographic center. “Do you get them at Wawas? Is that where you get them?” he asked, adding an extra ‘s’ to the store name. A few in the crowd laughed.
“No? Do you get them at Sheetz?” he continued. The local deli, actually, a supporter said.
“Well, I went to a place today called Wawas,” said Romney.
In his standard campaign speeches, Romney tended toward hyperbole. The Wisconsin fabric factory he visited didn’t have much air conditioning, though it was nowhere near as hot as some of the open-air venues he’d visited previously. “It’s so hot in here the building is sweating!” he exclaimed as he took the stage. Earlier, in Ohio, pouring rain caught his attention. “This is courage!” he told the people who had braved the weather.
Even energy policy sparked the obvious overstatement. Speaking to those gathered in the town square in Newark, Ohio, he criticized President Barack Obama’s decision not to move forward with the Keystone XL pipeline. “I’ll get that oil pipeline in from Canada even if I have to build it myself!” Romney said.
After he had spoken — an address could range from six minutes to as many as 20 — Romney would shake hands with the people who lined up along the metal barriers in front of the stage. Grinning widely the whole time, he’d sign posters and memorabilia. But he didn’t really stop to chat.
“Appreciate your help today!” he told voters as he shook hands in Brunswick, Ohio. “Thanks for being here!” he would say. Or he’d offer just a word: “Wow!”
His crowds were more excited than ever. And in interviews throughout the tour, voters said they found him unexpectedly personable. “He showed his humanity,” said Marge Sowa, 69, a retired secretary who stood in the rain to hear Romney’s speech in Brunswick, Ohio. “I thought he really showed a warm side.”
Romney was eager to engage on a friendly, personal level with the reporters who covered him. He twice walked to the back of his campaign plane to talk, the first time bringing three of his grandchildren to chat with the press. Flying to Michigan, Romney poked fun at himself.
“I just want to tell you that we’re about to go to Michigan,” he said, before repeating a line that earned him ridicule during the primary campaign. “When we land, look around, and you’ll see the trees are the right height.”
Amid laughter, he added, “That’s all I got.”
Follow Kasie Hunt on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kasie.