Once a suit-and-tie guy, Romney opts for jeans

Critic says new look could be seen as inauthentic

The emphasis was on connecting with average people when Mitt Romney announced this month in Stratham, N.H., that he is a candidate for 2012. The emphasis was on connecting with average people when Mitt Romney announced this month in Stratham, N.H., that he is a candidate for 2012. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON — As he reintroduces himself to Republican voters, Mitt Romney is increasingly trying to highlight a more casual side of himself and erase the image of a stuffy businessman who spent a career in boardrooms and owns three homes on both coasts.

The former Massachusetts governor is rarely behind a podium. He flies in coach and carries his own bags. He almost never wears a tie, opting instead for a striped, open-collar shirt, loafers, and blue jeans (alternating between the fashionable Gap 1969 variety and a pair of old standard Levi’s 514).

“Well, I stopped wearing my suit to bed at night,’’ he joked in an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan that aired Monday night.

While his rhetoric on President Obama is often sharp, nearly everything about his campaign — the way he’s dressing, the places he’s going, and the stories he’s telling — appears designed to make Romney appear more, well, average.

But some suggest the updated style runs the risk of making him seem calculating, and willing to change his image if that’s what it takes to become president. When he gave his first major speech of the campaign — outlining his defense of the Massachusetts health care plan and his critique of the national one — he went without a tie.

“Somebody’s told Romney, ‘Your hair’s too perfect and you’re always dressed to the nines,’ ’’ said Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative power broker in Iowa who four years ago was Mike Huckabee’s state campaign chairman.

“But when I saw him give the health care speech, authenticity became a question for me again,’’ he said. “You’re a CEO giving a major speech with a PowerPoint presentation, and you don’t have a tie? In my world that doesn’t line up, and in his world it doesn’t line up . . . Just be who you are.’’

Romney advisers are eager to portray him as caring about average people with average economic problems — and have the photographers there to capture it. When he was in Orlando, he went to an H&R Block office and talked about how complicated tax forms can be. When he was in New Hampshire, he went to a gas station to talk about how gas prices are soaring. When he was in Las Vegas, he toured a neighborhood beset with foreclosed homes.

It all has the effect of making Romney look not like a president, but like an average person, reflecting the calculation that his advisers already think he looks presidential but still needs to connect.

They acknowledge he can come across as stiff and at times awkward, but say that he’s getting better and has learned from his first presidential bid.

“Just going through it you find your skin, if you will. He’s very comfortable this time,’’ said Ron Kaufman, a Republican consultant and a top Romney adviser. “Ronald Reagan was a hell of a lot better candidate in 1980 than he was in 1976. Going through it, the good ones learn, the bad ones don’t.’’

His advisers said that four years ago there was a concerted effort to make Romney appear presidential. So he wore suits, even when touring farms.

“There was an attempt four years ago to help people imagine him in the Oval Office, so you saw him in a suit a lot,’’ said one senior adviser. “He’s passed that test, so now you’re seeing a more natural, more relaxed Mitt. It doesn’t mean he’s turned into Ted Williams overnight and refuses to wear a necktie.’’

Romney is also telling stories on the stump that highlight a life story that is not his own, but that of his father. During a town hall meeting last week in Manchester, it took him a full five minutes before he got to any discussion of himself.

“My dad learned how to be a lath-and-plaster carpenter,’’ Romney said. “Dad could take a handful of nails, put them in his mouth, and spit them out, point forward. Boom, boom, boom, and put up this lath. He was very good at it.’’

Almost as an aside, he mentions that his father ran one of the biggest car companies in America, became governor of Michigan, and ran for president in 1968. Telling his father’s story seems to counter other Republicans in the field, such as former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who frequently tells of being the first in his family to go to college, of his father driving a milk truck, and of his mother dying of cancer when he was 16.

“What do people think about when they think about Republicans?’’ Pawlenty said last year, as he began formulating his presidential bid. “What’s the stereotype? You know: We’re all CEOs, we’re sons and daughters of CEOs, we play polo on the weekends.’’

Romney has been reluctant to divulge much about his new clothing choices.

“By and large I ask the one person that counts, and that’s my wife. ‘What should I wear today?’ ’’ he said in the CNN interview with Morgan.

“I said, ‘I’m going to be on with Piers today, what should I wear?’ I said, ‘I think I should wear a tie, don’t you?’ She said, ‘No, no, no. Just wear the shirt you’ve got on, a blue shirt, and a sports coat.’ I do as I’m commanded.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at