SUMTER, S.C. — The criticism of Mitt Romney is getting personal.
His rivals have tried to chip away at his business record and they've hit him on abortion. Now, Rick Santorum is calling him "bland and boring." And Newt Gingrich is chiding him for, among other things, once strapping the family dog to a kennel on the roof of his car and speaking French.
It's a reflection of Romney's strong standing in the race for the GOP presidential nomination after back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. His opponents are struggling to derail him a week before the Jan. 21 South Carolina contest and just over two weeks until the Florida primary.
The more personal criticism cuts to the heart of one of Romney's big vulnerabilities – his image.
In his first presidential race four years ago, an always buttoned-up Romney struggled to connect with people, often coming across as stiff and slick. He always wore a suit and tie on the campaign trail. His hair was perfectly coiffed. He told goofy jokes. And the wealthy Boston resident with several homes often had what were perceived as uneasy encounters with voters.
This time, his campaign had made a conscious effort to make him seem more down to earth.
He often talks about pop culture. His new campaign uniform is a pair of jeans – usually Gap or Tommy Bahama – paired with a button-down patterned shirt. He wears suits on the debate stage, but only an hour after a morning debate in New Hampshire he was already in new clothes for a campaign event. His wife, Ann, often testifies about Romney's easy-going, even fun, personal side.
At an event here Saturday, 55-year-old Ruth Williams approached Romney to tell him she was jobless. Romney opened his wallet and handed her a wad of cash, according to ABC News. A Romney spokesperson confirmed he gave her between $50 and $60.
But Romney still hasn't been able to fully shake the image of a dull, straight-laced Wall Street banker with an awkward side who lacks charisma.
And some of his rivals are stoking the notion that the wealthy former venture capitalist from Boston is out of touch with many Americans – and far from the kind of president an average-Joe voter would want to down a beer with.
Gingrich's campaign has assembled a highlight reel of clips of Romney's verbal miscues, and openings he's created for rivals to attack, from this campaign and from 2008. One clip is from a Fox News interview in which Romney says the family's Irish Setter traveled in "a completely airtight kennel, mounted on the roof of our car."
"We loved the dog. It was where he was comfortable," Romney said then of Seamus.
Another clip shows Romney saying: "Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?"
The video is titled "For the Dogs," and it includes the tag line: "Imagine what Obama would do with a candidate like that."
Another video by the Gingrich campaign, called "The French Connection," compares Romney to failed Democratic presidential nominees Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, two liberals from Massachusetts who had trouble winning over voters. Kerry, in particular, was seen as aloof and elitist by many voters.
The video is set to French music and shows a picture of Dukakis wearing a helmet in a tank and Kerry windsurfing – iconic images of their failed White House bids. It labels Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, as a "Massachusetts moderate who runs away from Ronald Reagan." It noted that Romney donated to Democrats in the past and says: "He'll say anything to win – anything. And just like, John Kerry, he speaks French, too."
Romney's conscious of the criticism. Outside an Iowa HyVee, a day after he compared Obama to the French queen Marie Antoinette, Romney was asked if he could say, "let them eat cake" in French.
"I can, but I won't," Romney replied.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, rolled out a fundraising email Friday that warned his supporters that picking Romney would be like picking failed nominees John McCain, Al Gore, Bob Dole and even Dukakis, another former Massachusetts governor.
"Americans have been down this road before," Santorum says in the appeal. "At various times both parties nominated boring candidates because they were considered `electable.' In every one of those cases, they weren't electable at all. Now Republicans are again thinking about nominating another bland and boring candidate for president – Mitt Romney."
Santorum compared Romney to Obama, who has had a reputation for being standoffish, saying: "Republicans can't afford a nominee" who resembles "Obama so much that he can't barely be distinguished from him."
Santorum also has hit Romney for appearing distant, calling his rival "someone who, I think, has had a difficult time relating to the type of voters we're going to need if we're going to win this election."
He cast Romney's tenure at the helm of a venture capital firm in terms that may resonate with many American workers: "It doesn't necessarily mean that you want your boss running for president, right?"
So far, Romney hasn't faltered as he answers attacks on his record. Will he when it gets personal?