WASHINGTON -- Back in 2002, when Mitt Romney began running for governor of Massachusetts, his campaign managers thought it would be a good idea to have the millionaire perform various blue-collar jobs around the state. In a move that presaged "Undercover Boss," strategists put Romney in blue jeans, gave him a long, shiny wrench, and had him play at being a mechanic for a photo op.
The campaign called these events "work days." He served sausages outside Fenway Park. He donned a hard hat. He hammered nails. He drove a tractor on a farm, bumping along stiffly in the seat. It was, at times, painfully forced. Then again, every day was basically his first on the job.
"Just keep on doing some stuff?” Romney asked as the cameras whirred before turning back to the engine block. He mumbled under the hood about power steering fluid and stabbed at the engine with a wrench as if unsure where to put it. At one point, he wondered to the crowd, "Whose Bichon Frise is that over there? Is that a neighbor? Oh, that's great."
These kinds of stunts are a political tradition designed to showcase the candidate as just another average Joe. In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama worked a day as a home health care worker. Romney did similar duty one afternoon with a nurse in Medford, Mass.
Some pols pull it off better than others. Watching the footage from a news report and Democratic trackers today, it's hard not to feel sorry for Romney. For those brief moments, the one thing he seemed to have in common with the common man was, simply, a strong desire not to be caught looking stupid.
The Boston Herald gave him a hard time back then, describing these events as "Village People-esque." His Democratic opponent for governor, state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, called them a "costume party."
"In 2002, putting Romney in different costumes and having him work with 'real people' was the first of many lame attempts during his political career to portray Mitt as a regular guy who understands the challenges faced by average people," O'Brien recently told The Huffington Post. "It backfired back then and appears to backfire every time he's tried to be the 'aw shucks' regular guy in subsequent presidential campaigns."
With the Republican National Convention just days away, Romney is once more looking for a way to present himself to the masses. His campaign has turned to skilled ad men to re-craft his image, with hopes that glossy ads and the right tag line can turn the multi-millionaire businessman into a Republican populist. It's the same task that Romney's 2002 campaign faced. And the jury is out as to whether it works.
"The work day events and spots may have contributed to our success in 2002," said Jonathan Spampinato, who was the deputy political director. "But I don't recall a positive correlation between our polling numbers and the work day adverts."
On those work outings, Romney seemed to really stumble when he stopped acting and became himself.
In front of the microphones, he talked about filling up cars with gas and changing some oil. "On that Jeep Cherokee ... it took five quarts," he said, uncomfortably sharing the exacting details of the work.
While on the farm, Romney blurted, "I have severe allergy to hay." He added, laughing maybe to himself, "We'll be dripping from eyes to nose shortly. I sent a crew back to go find as many handkerchiefs as they're able to find."
Not tissues, handkerchiefs.