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Romney's disconnect

For the past three years now, I've often thought there was something odd about Mitt Romney, something funny, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. At 9 a.m. Monday, I finally figured it out.

I know the time because Romney told me. He didn't tell just me; he told the 300-plus members of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce who were gathered in a hotel ballroom to listen to his speech and ask a few questions from the floor. Romney looked at his watch and announced, ''It's 9 o'clock," meaning it was time for him and everyone else to get on with their day.

And right then and there, like dawn breaking over Marblehead, it came to me. Mitt Romney, among many other things, is a classic control freak.

Put it this way: Politicians, at least good ones, don't remind audiences of the hour. They don't abruptly stop conversations. They follow the same basic script: An aide steps in and announces, ''We're going to have to wrap up." The politician ignores the aide to make a little more small talk. The politician bids a reluctant farewell, as if the thought of leaving such a wonderful group is almost unbearable to take.

Not Mitt. He answered one final question and quickly exited the stage to the typically tepid applause that he hears all around Massachusetts.

This might be a minor point,except for the context. Our perfectly coiffed and impeccably manicured governor is about to wade into the most unkempt and unruly event in American politics, a presidential campaign. It will require him to endure badgering Iowan farmers, off-key school band performers, potential contributors who assume he has all the time in the world.

A campaign will require him to turn over huge swaths of his beleaguered life to a handful of aides, no micromanaging allowed. It will require him to seek tranquility at the core of a constant storm, to love the place you're in,if you can't be in the place you love.

Can Romney do this?

Monday morning, as he strode into his second event at the Westin Copley Place hotel, television correspondent Jon Keller called out, ''What's the good word, governor?"

Romney could have responded with a lot of clever things, but here's what he said instead: ''Beautiful day." He said this as he brushed past a few reporters without making eye contact, then added a couple of strides later: ''Nice and warm outside."

Thank you, Harvey Leonard.

As he exited, a reporter called out one final question, but Romney kept walking, awkwardly, head down, until he reached the salvation of a side door.

In fact, he's become the master of the protected exit and the back stairs, the better to avoid unruliness. During a political appearance in Tennessee last weekend, he was the only potential presidential candidate not to regularly engage reporters.

Which is a shame. There is much to like about this governor. He can be uncommonly thoughtful and occasionally eloquent,and his earnestness is often refreshing. He will never be corrupt.

And yet his personality demands the kind of structure and order that will prove impossible in a presidential campaign, at least not in a successful one. Perhaps overthinking his father's downfall, he seems consumed by panic that he will say the wrong thing.

Romney has never asked my advice, but here it is anyway: The voters don't want the kind of prim, prompt, and programmed politico that he strives to be. They don't want candidates always searching out the door, glancing at their watch, staring blankly at people as they shake their hands.

They want someone who can flow with the moment, rather than obsessively try to control it. They want to see give-and-take and back-and-forth and the ability to ad lib. They want candidates able to linger rather than lurch.

In other words, Mitt, relax. The biggest thing you have to fear is victory, unlikely at best.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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