WASHINGTON -- In the dead of the winter, as Mitt Romney campaigned across Iowa and New Hampshire, one of his senior strategists kept asking reporters the same question.
"Have you been to a job fair recently?" Stuart Stevens would ask. When the answer was almost inevitably in the negative, Stevens would then mutter softly something like "devastating."
The latest web video put out Tuesday by Romney's campaign certainly pulls at the heartstrings. It features three out of work Iowans talking very matter- of-factly about their hard luck.
"I've been looking for a job for two years, haven't found any," says Deborah Ragland, a 59-year-old mother of two from Webster City. "My unemployment benefits did run out, and just trying to get by."
A piano plays a few sorrowful notes.
Troy Knapp, a 20-something from Alton, talks about what he does to make a few dollars.
"I end up going over and helping Damon in Iowa Falls," Knapp says. "He's a good friend of mine. He does moving and storage, and then I help him dig graves on the side."
"I probably dug a couple hundred graves," he says.
Jason Clausen, of Mason City, talks about losing his job and his house after his divorce, but defiantly says he has continued to find work.
"There's two things in this world I care about," he says. "It's going to work and paying my child support."
Clausen worked on the staircases at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, during a 2010 restoration of the 100-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel. When he finished, he wrote his name and his daughter's name in marker on the last step.
"To this day, my daughter and I, when she's feeling down, we go to that step. I call it our step," Clausen says.
This is how the Romney campaign hopes to get lift, that intangible but all important quality in a message that gets it over the hump and actually moves voters to consider supporting the candidate. It will come apparently not from the campaign's nearly emotionless candidate, but from the stories of everyday Americans.
The four-minute video released on Tuesday, the same day Romney was set to speak about the nation's debt in Des Moines, Iowa, will serve as the source material for 30-second spots that the Romney campaign plans to run closer to Election Day, a Romney aide said.
Romney and his campaign have been resolute in staying focused on the economy. But Romney's limited –- some would say nonexistent -- ability to inspire and to speak in poetic terms about his candidacy and what conservatism means has hampered his message's appeal.
The Romney campaign's high command hopes to make the election about President Barack Obama first and foremost and claim that he has failed to produce any significant economic growth. The Romney team also wants to make it about Americans who are still struggling through the worst recession since the Great Depression.
"It's hard to know where to put your trust. And it's going to get tougher I think," Ragland says in the ad.
The ad and its overall message run the risk of being seen as depressing. The Romney message ultimately has to be one that is hopeful, one about how Romney would help the country. It cannot simply be, as Obama adviser David Axelrod characterized Romney's pitch on a recent conference call with reporters, "The American people have gone through a tough time, so elect me president."
But Obama is facing his own challenges in providing undecided voters with a compelling reason to give him another four years. Like Romney, it has been difficult for him to offer a positive vision and an uplifting rationale for his candidacy.
Obama is hampered by an economic picture that, while improved, is still grim for many and by the fact many Americans don't like the things he has done in office, such as health care reform or the stimulus. So tearing down Romney as "backward-looking," as Obama's campaign did last week, is an integral part of his argument that re-electing him will help move the country "forward."
One of Romney's biggest weaknesses is his inability to connect with voters to feelingly and persuasively defend his business career, explain who he is and win over undecided voters.
Even Ragland, one of the Iowans featured in the Romney video, told The Huffington Post by phone Tuesday that Romney had not been her first choice for president in the Republican primary.
"It was Newt [Gingrich]. But I'll support the Republicans," she said.
So Romney will hope that others, namely voters hit hard by the recession, can help him make the case for why he should be the next president.
Ragland voted for Obama in 2008 after supporting Republicans most of her life but said she regrets doing so. She's now with Romney.
"I switched sides there for a minute and I wish I didn't," she told HuffPost. "[Obama] was in town and he seemed so sincere, and I didn't like [John] Mccain. And I thought well let's try something different."
"Well obviously it's not working," she said. "[Obama]'s a likeable guy but he's just not getting it done."
Romney is trying to introduce himself as a family man to soften his image, but his challenge in becoming a convincing persuader burst into the open last month when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels urged him to speak more directly to "the young and poor -- those who haven't achieved the dream yet."
The notes that both campaigns intend to play are becoming clear. They are telling, essentially, the same story about their opponents: "He has hurt you." Or in the case of the Obama ads released this week, the message is "He has hurt people like you." Both campaign videos feature regular Americans talking about hard times and send the message that their opponent has made life more difficult for the little guy.
"It was a like a vampire," says Jack Cobb, an Ohio steelworker for 31 years, in the anti-Romney ad put out by the Obama campaign. "They came in and sucked the life out of us."
The Obama campaign's ad portrays Romney as a heartless corporate raider who profited from payouts to Bain Capital even as the steel mill in Ohio that it had bought in 1993 was shut down in 2001. A super PAC supporting the president has nearly identical ads that were released on Tuesday.
The theme in Obama's ads is one of anger. The theme in Romney's video Tuesday is one of regular Americans hanging on and trying to work hard, with the solution being a president who "believes in them." In that respect, there is an element of positivity in the Republican's ads that does not exist in the incumbent Democrat's. However, Knapp does get in a shot at the president near the end of the Romney video.
"A lot of people, when Barack was running, everyone believed; everyone had hope. They all thought, 'Man, this guy's going to get something done,'" Knapp says. "When he is office now, it just seems like nothing's getting done. It seems like it's all talk."
"You know, you can say whatever you want, but it's not about saying what everyone wants to hear. It's about doing it," he says.
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