BERLIN, New Hampshire (Reuters) - A more confident and energized Mitt Romney is putting his people skills to the test in New Hampshire as he tries to fix a likeability issue that hurt his failed bid for the White House in 2008.
The Republican presidential hopeful is shaking hands, signing autographs and pumping diesel in a dozen appearances over three days in a classic campaign bus tour aimed at winning the Republican nomination backed by television ads.
In an interview with Reuters, the former Massachusetts governor said he has embraced retail politics with a different mindset than in 2008 when he lost the nomination to John McCain, who was then beaten by Barack Obama in the general election.
A multi-millionaire former businessman, Romney was often described as wooden and unable to connect with ordinary people like mechanics, nurses and farmers during his earlier bid.
“I think I recognize this time, perhaps more than in my last run, that a lot of this is out of my control,” Romney said on his spacious tour bus, which was manufactured in North Dakota and custom-wrapped in Tennessee with the signage “Conservative Business Leader” and “Believe in America.”
“What ultimately happens is not just a function of my work, and my campaign, but also things that occur in the nation and things that occur in other peoples’ campaigns. And so I‘m a little more philosophical about the process,” Romney said.
Romney has had some celebrated awkward moments on the 2012 campaign trail, from his “corporations are people, my friend” comment in Iowa to telling a group of jobless people in Florida that he is also unemployed.
With most polls showing him enjoying a sizable lead in New Hampshire, Romney is attempting to drive home his advantage in the lead up to the state’s January 10 primary election.
Long-time associates say Romney 2012 is leaner and more focused, taking on board fewer consultants and advisers, who often sent conflicting messages in his previous campaign.
At Hypotherm Inc in Hanover, where Romney did a tour of the factory floor and held a town hall meeting for staff, machinist Robert Von Baltzer, wasn’t buying Romney’s smooth answers.
“I’ve heard the talk. I would like to see the walk,” said Von Baltzer, 57. “What can you say to me and to other voters that are sitting here, that the promises that you’re making, that you can walk the talk?” he asked.
“That’s a fair sentiment there,” answered Romney, who then went into typical campaign speech mode urging Americans to do more for their country.
Romney,64, has been a front-runner in the Republican race for months. But, despite running a smooth campaign while rivals crumble, he has yet to light a fire and is stuck at around 25 percent in polls. Conservatives have yet to warm to him.
A former venture capitalist, Romney said his work as a lay leader in the Mormon church near his home in Belmont, Massachusetts in the 1980s had helped him deal with different types of people.
“That has allowed me to stay connected with people who face very different circumstances than myself. That experience, as well as my service overseas to my church, has made me understand the extraordinary psychological pain associated with unemployment, for instance ... I have not lived my life detached from the world.”
Many who met Romney this week, including some who showed up to events still undecided on their vote, came away with a favorable impression.
In remote Lancaster, Romney chatted with Jessica Hebert about her experiences raising prize-winning dairy cows as a teenager.
“He was down to earth and very personable. I like that he’s come to a local place,” said Hebert, 32, a political independent who voted for Obama in 2008. “Meeting someone face to face - you look at them in a different way.”
At the Agway farm supply and hardware store in Lancaster, in New Hampshire’s northernmost Coos County, Romney compared retail politics favorably to the glitzy fund-raisers he has attended while amassing a large campaign war-chest.
But Bernard Folta of Claremont, said he found Romney overly rehearsed during a brief encounter in Newport, New Hampshire.
“A primary campaign is a theatrical situation, and there are stock answers to the majority of the issues that will come up on the stump,” said Folta, 69, who is retired from a computing job and a registered Republican. “He’s a sharp guy, with good consultants.”
Jim Merrill, who was Romney’s New Hampshire campaign manager in 2008 and is a strategist in the state this year, said Romney is more relaxed in his personal encounters with voters this time around. “He’s more his own man,” Merrill said.
Romney went door to door in the town of Berlin wearing only a light jacket in near freezing temperatures. At one point he ran several blocks after the car of a local official he knew.
“He relates well to people. He seems more genuine than the other contenders,” said Shelley Harter, 59, who was visiting from Pasadena, California.
Younger voters were less convinced. In Conway, college student Kallie Durkit, 21, said Romney lacked “relatability” and his message did not resonate the way that Obama’s had in 2008.
“I don’t think he will be able to mobilize the college-age students,” Durkit said.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Alistair Bell and Anthony Boadle.