NASHUA, N.H. -- Mitt Romney said Monday that his success in the GOP presidential primary -- and perhaps in the general election -- will hinge on his ability to convince Americans that he personally cares about their well-being, and that his ideas are the best way to improve their lives and the country in general.
"For me, this is going to be a battle about describing my heart, my passion to help -- if you will -- the great majority of Americans," Romney said at a breakfast hosted by the local chamber of commerce here, one day before the state's voters go to the polls for the first in the nation primary.
It was an unusual comment from a politician who has thus far focused on discussing ways in which to jumpstart the economy, and a possible nod to the critique of him as a candidate who fails at connecting on a human level with voters.
And it came at a time when the attacks on Romney's past career in private equity are reaching a new level, as a super PAC supporting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is going up with $3.4 million worth of TV ads in South Carolina attacking Romney as a "predatory corporate raider" who destroyed American jobs in order to produce big profits for rich investors.
The fight with Gingrich presages what will probably be even more aggressive attacks from Democrats if Romney becomes the Republican nominee. Romney's answer was an indication that he knows he cannot simply explain his way through this argument. He will have to talk to the American people and get through to their hearts, not just their minds.
But talking about doing so is easier than actually doing it.
Romney's answer came in response to a question from the audience about how to "convince the masses that our vision as conservatives benefits them."
His first stab at answering indicated both a desire to persuade and win over voters -- and a hint of recognition that he still faces challenges in doing so -- as well as a cold calculation of the minimum number of votes he needs to get to the White House.
"Well that is the question of my campaign, of course," Romney said, "because I need to get 50.1 percent of Americans behind me."
Romney then went in an unexpected direction by mentioning Latino voters.
"And perhaps one of the best tests would be to take a group like, uh, like, um, Latino Americans, and say, 'How can I convince more Latino Americans to, say, support a Republican?' If I can do that, why, I will be doing well pretty broadly," he said.
Romney's stances on immigration reform -- particularly his statements that all undocumented immigrants would have to return to their country of origin under his presidency -- have put him at odds with many Latino voters, who are the biggest and fastest growing minority voting bloc in the nation.
Romney's comment seemed to be an indication that, after using the immigration issue to bash Texas Gov. Rick Perry in Iowa, he now recognizes the need to start reaching out to Latinos, in anticipation of a potential showdown with President Barack Obama in the general election.
"The answer is, in my view, by pointing to the fact that most of us here came, or our ancestors came, for opportunity," Romney said, continuing on the topic of how to win over Latino voters. "We did not come because America had the most generous benefits in the world. If you're looking for a president who will promise a lot of free stuff and give you the most benefits, that is not me. People came here for opportunity, for great jobs for themselves and for their kids."
"If people want someone to turn American into Europe, they can vote for the other guy. If they want to have somebody who will create opportunity for all Americans, that's me," he said.
Just before he made his comment about the "battle" to describe his heart, Romney stressed the importance of "equal opportunity," saying he would "fight for good schools, K-12 and higher education" and "fight for research and development."
"I'll encourage the private sector and businesses to hire people through all the measures that I spoke about," he said.
But Romney still stumbled somewhat over comments that could be perceived as tone-deaf, if taken out of context.
The worst came when he was discussing the need to introduce competition into the health care system.
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone isn't giving me the service I need, I want to say, you know, I'm going to go get somebody else to provide that service," he said.
Romney was speaking as a consumer, not an employer, a distinction that substantively makes a big difference. But, fair or not, such a phrase will likely be used against Romney in attack ads, much like Romney himself took a quote from Obama out of context and used it in an attack ad of his own. The failure to recognize this on his part showed Romney still has a long way to go if he does, in fact, want to become a convincing, persuasive candidate to voters nationwide.
The DNC quickly released video of Romney's comments, seen below:
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