WASHINGTON -- After weeks of confined and controlled campaign stops, Mitt Romney has suddenly become a candidate eager to mix it up with voters in impromptu settings.
The transformation has been fueled by two factors, Republican sources say. The first is the momentum that the Romney campaign feels coming off a strong debate performance on Wednesday night, resulting in the type of adoring crowds needed to provide a soft landing for a candidate who is often stiff and awkward in such settings.
The second is a plan to get Romney better prepared for the next presidential debate, which will put him and President Barack Obama in a town hall format.
In the days since the first debate, Romney has held town-hall style calls, visited local restaurants and stopped by an elementary school. His schedule, as culled from the pool reports, has been as follows:
Romney made an impromptu stop at the Colorado CPAC meeting for a short talk with attendees. It hadn't been on his schedule. After flying to the Shenandoah Valley, he mingled with about 20 "well-wishers," before holding a tele-town hall in Iowa.
Romney held a "closed-door roundtable with laid-off coal workers and their wives." Later, he did a tele-town hall meeting with voters in Ohio. Late at night he made an unscheduled stop at a well-known Cuban restaurant in Tampa, Fla., where he went table-to-table chatting up patrons and the waitstaff.
Romney held a tele-townhall with voters in Virginia.
Romney visited a local fish and chips restaurant in Port St. Lucie, Fla. with his wife, Ann, during which he humorously got a piece of napkin stuck his face and allowed the staffer to wipe it off. He left to a cheering throng of supporters waiting in the street.
Romney participated in a roundtable discussion with retired generals following his latest foreign policy speech. After a short motorcade ride he stopped at an elementary school, where he shook hands and played around with a bunch of the students.
The style and pace of Romney's recent schedule are a dramatic departure from what he had been doing in the weeks leading up to the debate. During the first 20 days of September, for instance, Romney held just 13 campaign events and 13 fundraisers and made six impromptu campaign stops.
Democrats, in assessing the Republican nominee's calendar, suggested that he was using the campaign trail as a trial run for his next showdown with the president.
"Don't you assume that [the retail politics] is debate prep in itself, given that next debate is interactive town hall format?" asked one top Democratic official.
The Huffington Post posed that question to a well-connected Republican operative.
"I think that's true," the operative replied. "The other thing I'd note is that if you look at that last debate, the president did not give an actual anecdote about a human until the debate was practically over. Doing these type of events provides you with those anecdotes to use."