Mitt Romney, family man, on display in preconvention interview

Refocusing the presidential campaign on the economy is written, in pen, at the top of Mitt Romney’s to-do list at this week’s Republican National Convention. His next priority, which might be nearly as important, appears to be projecting warmth and compassion, qualities many voters look for in their candidates—but few attribute to Romney, according to polls.

Beginning the effort two days before the weather-delayed start of the convention in Tampa, Romney put his family-man qualities on display Sunday in a television interview at his lakeside home in Wolfeboro, N.H. Romney made buttermilk pancakes with his wife, Ann, for Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace and strolled the grounds of his family’s vacation compound with a young grandson on his hip.

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Romney discussed policy, yes, but devoted more time to personal matters, showing off the household “chore wheel” and laughing about his struggle—at age 65—to keep up in the annual “Romney Olympics.”

He professed his love for Ann—“my best friend and my counselor”—and for the discount chain Costco, which, he said, has “great produce” and “nice shirts.”

A key question over the next two months is whether voters will embrace this pancake-flipping, Costco-shopping version of Romney, who right now scores poorly on measures of his ability to relate to typical voters.

Romney heads into this week’s convention running almost neck-and-neck with President Obama in national polls, but An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey published last Wednesday showed Obama with a 22-point advantage over Romney in caring about average Americans.

A CNN/ORC poll released on Sunday showed Romney trailing President Obama by 14 percentage points on questions about who cares about people and who is in touch with the middle class. On a question about which candidate is more in touch with women, Romney lagged 29 points behind the president.

Republicans do not readily concede these deficits pose a real threat to Romney’s candidacy.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was dismissive when discussing the findings of the network’s “single poll.”

“It shows that Obama, in that poll, has an advantage on those issues,” Priebus said. “It doesn’t prove that people think Mitt Romney doesn’t care about the middle class and doesn’t care about women. It just says in those polls, there is an advantage.”

But later, Priebus said that during the convention “it’s incumbent on us to do two things: One, we still have to prosecute the president as far as whether he fulfilled the mission that he laid out in ’08. And he didn’t. But the second piece is telling the story about a man that’s decent [and] honorable.”

In the Fox News interview, Ann Romney said she hopes voters will begin to see another side of her husband, who has run largely on his business record.

“I wish everyone could see him how I see him,” Ann Romney said, “because as a mother, I’ve seen him, how compassionate he’s been with me, as a wife and my raising these small children and how he always valued my work as being more important than his.”

The Obama campaign has been blitzing the airwaves for months, characterizing Romney as a ruthless businessman, who as chief executive of the private equity firm Bain Capital had little regard for workers whose jobs, health insurance and retirement savings were collateral damage in the firm’s profitable transactions. Obama also has depicted Romney as a political weather vane who tells voters what he believes they want to hear, not what he believes.

Democrats contend it will be difficult for Romney to counteract that image during and after the convention.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Romney’s “convention reinvention” will not work “because not only has he not connected, but he’s alienated large groups of important voters.”

Republicans, on the other hand, appear to be betting that likability will be a byproduct of Romney’s focus on the sluggish economic recovery under Obama.

John McCain said on “Meet the Press” that Romney does not need a “game change” at the convention but simply needs to “reinforce his message.”

“We have to point out that the unemployment rate amongst young women is now 16 percent, that the unemployment amongst Hispanics is very high, that jobs and the economy are more important, perhaps, than other issues,” McCain said.

In the Fox News interview at his vacation home, Romney shrugged off a question about whether low poll ratings on personal qualities bother him.

“You know, all I can do is it be what I am,” Romney said. “Remember that Popeye line: ‘I am what I am and that’s all what I am.’ ”

“And,” he added, shifting quickly back to the economy, “I’m doing my very best to try and get this country back on track.”