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Life with Romney: Gee whiz rules

Mitt Romney celebrated in Ames with family members after winning Iowa's straw poll. He said he was 'pleased as punch.'
Mitt Romney celebrated in Ames with family members after winning Iowa's straw poll. He said he was "pleased as punch." (Getty Images Photo / Eric Thayer)

At a rally in Ames, Iowa, on the eve of last weekend's straw poll, Mitt Romney invited his siblings onstage with his children and grandchildren. "Boy, we've got the whole gopher village up here," he told the crowd with a grin. "This is so much fun."

"Whoop-de-do!" he says of John Edwards's proposal to let Americans save $250 tax-free. "Gosh, I love America," Romney said during one GOP debate. After hitting a long golf drive in one of his campaign videos, he shouts, "Holy moly!"

Romney often sounds as if he has stepped out of a time machine from 1950s suburban America, golly-ing and gosh-ing his way across the nation, letting out the occasional "Holy cow!" after something really shocks him.

When he won the straw poll, he pronounced himself "pleased as punch." On NBC's "Today" show a couple days later, he said his opponents would also "be pleased as punch if they could be in my position in Iowa today, no doubt."

Of course, every presidential candidate tries not to swear in public, so most deploy the occasional "darn." And Romney is hardly the only folksy candidate in a field that includes a former governor from rural Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, who is known for his colorful one-liners. Huckabee told the straw poll crowd that as a Republican in his mostly Democratic state, he felt like "Michael Vick at the Westminster dog show."

But the face Romney presents for public consumption could be right out of "Father Knows Best" or "Leave it to Beaver."

On his sons' Five Brothers campaign blog, the Romney brothers tell tales of short-sheeting his bed. On the campaign trail, Romney speaks adoringly of the Nash Ramblers his father used to make when he was chairman of American Motors Corp.

He so admires Dwight Eisenhower that he tried to get his grandchildren to call him Ike. (No dice; they preferred Papa.)

"I do love chocolate malts!" he declared at an ice cream parlor in rural Iowa earlier this month. "You can't find them everywhere."

Campaign observers debate whether Romney's back-to-the-future persona is genuine -- as his family and friends insist it is -- and whether it will help or hurt his campaign, which promises low taxes, small government, and a return to traditional family values.

David Gergen, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government who has served as an adviser to presidents of both parties, said the most important thing about a candidate is authenticity, and he said Romney does not seem to be putting on an act.

"This 'Ozzie and Harriet' world in which he lives seems to be his true world," he said. "For that reason, there are some who find it a throwback. Others are very comfortable with it."

But Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Talking Right," a study of how conservatives use language to defeat liberals, said he does not buy the "Happy Days" presentation.

"He's the son of a governor who went to Harvard Law and Harvard Business School, who ran a leveraged buyout firm -- who talks like Jimmy Stewart," he said.

"It's condescending, because it implies listeners are going to be taken in by that sort of thing. It doesn't impute a very high level of intelligence to Republican voters."

Romney's sons, however, say they can attest that their father's lingo is as true-blue as it is square.

"That, unfortunately, is the way he talks on a regular basis," said Tagg Romney, the candidate's eldest son, adding that he and his brothers teased their father over the "pleased as punch" comment.

Tagg's younger brother Matt added that he has never heard his father swear, except for -- possibly -- damn or hell once or twice. Romney, he said, is more likely to say, "Oh, grunt," when he is miffed about something. "We love him for who he is, but he's definitely got his own unique style and manner of speaking," he said.

Mary E. Stuckey, a professor of communication and political science from Georgia State University in Atlanta, said adopting a 1950s image could help Romney counter his opponents' contention that he is a flip-flopper who holds no true convictions.

"One of the things 1950s nostalgia evokes is integrity or honesty or truthfulness," she said. "I think people associate the 1950s with something that could be called authentic, and I think he needs that."

Steven Keller, a professor of political communication at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, said the language seems to fit Romney's image -- an old-fashioned guy who looks old-fashioned with his "almost-a-pompadour hairdo," and who "seems to be espousing old-fashioned values."

Other candidates with more of a "hard edge or a dark side" might have a slightly tougher time pulling it off, he said.

"It probably wouldn't work with [Rudy] Giuliani."

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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