Mitt Romney’s ‘Missionary in France’ Tale Won’t Make Us Forget He’s Rich

Romney’s not fooling anyone when he tries to identify with poor folks. Michelle Cottle on why his missionary-in-France talk isn’t cutting it. Plus, join Howard Kurtz and John Avlon in a live chat about tonight's debate.

Jim Cole / AP Photo

Much as I’m a fan of vigorous primary challenges, I worry that this Newt Gingrich surge has knocked Mitt Romney dangerously off his game.

Forget the $10K bet the ex-governor tried to make with Rick Perry at Saturday’s debate. Anyone can freak out and screw up in the heat of the moment. Besides, when Perry gets that whole swaggery, smirky thing going, it likely takes all of Romney’s self-control to resist hauling off and smacking him.

What strikes me as the more troubling unforced error was Romney’s awkward morning-after effort to reach out to Joe Six-Pack voters.

I refer specifically to Sunday’s New Hampshire town hall at which Romney, asked about life-changing experiences, reminisced about his years roughing it as a Mormon missionary in France: staying in shabby little apartments that lacked refrigerators, showering with a garden hose in the kitchen sink, defecating in buckets.

“And so,” Romney explained, “I lived in a way that people of lower-middle income in France lived and said to myself, ‘Wow, I sure am lucky to have been born in the United States of America.’”

Let us try to set aside—preferably forever—the image of the ever-immaculate Romney crouched bare-assed over a pail. No doubt, missionary life was an eye-opener for the privileged young Mitt. But coming as this story did in the immediate wake of his $10,000 stumble, Romney’s uncharacteristic stroll down memory lane smacks of an altogether too obvious attempt to show voters he’s not some snooty fat cat who doesn’t know what it means to go without.

Memo to the struggling masses: Vote for me! I once crapped in a bucket!

It is, of course, the challenge of every presidential wannabe to show that he is a man of the people. “A demonstration that you can connect with people on an everyday level is a requirement of any successful candidate,” notes Republican strategist Terry Holt, a veteran of both of George W. Bush's presidential runs.

This can be tricky, however, especially for upper-crusty candidates. While some manage to come across as regular guys (think George W.’s professed love of brush clearing), others flounder painfully (think George H.W.’s professed love of pork rinds).

And if there’s anything worse than being seen as an elitist, it’s being seen as an insincere elitist, warns Republican campaign strategist Mark Corallo. “The American voter responds to authenticity. They really hate it when a fabulously wealthy guy tries to act like he’s just one of them. They see it as pandering. They see it as patronizing.”

Unfortunately for Romney, his occasional stabs at connecting with the 99 percent tend to veer off in the pork-rind-y direction. Who among us can forget the governor’s June stop at Buddy Brew Coffee in Tampa, where he quipped to a group of unemployed Floridians that he, too, was out of work?

Good one, Mitt.

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Still, with the current economic funk fueling populist rage on both ends of the political spectrum, Romney will need to reassure folks that his extraordinary wealth doesn’t mean he’s out of touch. So what’s a poor rich stiff to do?

Have a bad-hair day once in a while, says Michael Wissot, a senior strategist with Luntz Global, the communications firm of GOP spinmeister Frank Luntz. “No ties. No sports jackets. A more ruffled, less tidy hairstyle,” suggests Wissot. And spend even more time in places like schools and diners: “He needs to focus a lot of attention on presenting himself in a more relaxed environment.”

Yes, worrying about appearance may seem shallow, but visuals matter, says Wissot. “When there is a conflict between what they hear and what they see, people tend to trust what they see. They put the visuals above anything else.”

This is not to suggest that Romney shouldn’t work on his patter as well. But Wissot cautions that, financially speaking, the governor might want to steer clear of his own life show when trying to demonstrate that he understands what it’s like to be in the average person’s shoes. “Instead of making the focus his struggles or lack thereof, he needs to shift it back to the experiences of those he has met along the campaign trail over the last two elections.”

A candidate’s personal experience is only part of the equation, agrees Holt. “There are a million different ways that campaigns can demonstrate their candidate can connect.” (And in Romney’s case, Holt observes, tales from the missionary trail might prove more trouble than they’re worth: “It’s difficult to make a reference to your experience in France and come out well in American politics.”)

“Embrace who you are,” recommends Corallo, pointing to Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was cheered as a champion of the little guy, says Corallo, and “he was who he was: this aristocrat with a cigarette holder!”

“You have to be who you are,” echoes Holt. “That’s what people see anyway.”