MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney arrives at his campaign headquarters here 10 minutes early, a knife-blade crease in his khakis, winter tan, lots of hair, all of it in place. He skips the coffee and doughnuts in favor of skim milk and the home-baked granola sent along in a zip-lock baggie by his wife. That's Ann, his high school sweetheart -- the mother of his five handsome sons -- with whom he says he has never had a serious argument in 38 years of marriage.
By central-casting standards, the former Massachusetts governor is the perfect presidential specimen -- a comforting throwback to the 1950s, when nobody got divorced (they fell in love in high school and that was it), mothers stayed at home (he dubbed Ann the Romney CFO -- chief family officer) and the greatest parental challenge was making the boys practice their piano (Ann used to pinch their necks).
But as his campaign picks up speed in a wide-open GOP field, Romney comes face to handsome face with an unusual challenge: Can a candidate appear too perfect? It's a question that modern American voters, fed a steady diet of infidelity, divorce, pot smoking, high-class call girls and foil-wrapped cash stashed in freezers, have not had to ponder in a long time.
For rock-solid Republicans in early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire, the "Father Knows Best" image seems to resonate: Romney leads in polls in both states, even though he trails the twice-divorced, sometimes-dressed-in-drag former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in national surveys.
But if his political record is any indication, Romney's storybook personal life could backfire as he tries to broaden his appeal to a general-election audience. That was the case in the 2002 governor's race, when his campaign aired the "Ann" ad -- in which she described him as "very romantic" and he described her as "just good to the core" -- and his poll numbers tanked overnight.
It cannot be overlooked that this was Massachusetts, which was economically depressed at the time, and the sight of a well-to-do Mitt frolicking in a lake with his well-behaved sons left voters feeling more alienated than inspired. (He came back to win, in part because his opponent turned out to be sort of a sourpuss, which voters liked even less.)
Still, Romney seems to have learned that a well-placed flaw or two can be an advantage, putting his campaign team in the unique position of pointing out his shortcomings while his rivals struggle to make voters forget theirs.
"He's quick to temper and he doesn't like it when things don't go as planned. His children will tell you that he has his faults," Eric Fehrnstrom -- Romney's longtime communications director, who knows him like a book -- recited after a New Hampshire town hall where Romney was enthusiastically received. It was further noted that Romney has a brother and a sister who are divorced.
"Mitt Romney is not more perfect than you or I," Fehrnstrom asserted, a point the candidate himself seemed to want to underscore at a recent televised debate in Florida when he shooed away a makeup artist who tried to fix a wayward strand of hair on his forehead. The campaign got more calls about his hair than anything he said onstage.
"I think they know a real Boy Scout image is potentially damaging because it could be caricatured," said Andrew E. Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire. "Average people need to relate to him better . . . to be able to say, 'Oh, I've been there too.' "
When Giuliani warned voters this week to beware "this pretense of perfection," he mentioned Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama's acknowledgment of past drug use, but he was really aiming at Romney's picture-perfect past.
Romney's life looks like a photo album of the American dream: two homes, one in a posh Boston suburb and the other on a New Hampshire lakeside; four cars (he drives a red Mustang, Ann a Cadillac SUV); a friendly dog, big Christmases, church every Sunday, meaningful family discussions (Web viewers can watch as the Romneys gather on the sofa to ponder his run for president). If he has a vice, it's chocolate malts.
At the same time, his glide path was remarkably free of hardship, not the Horatio Alger story Americans sometimes warm to in a candidate. The son of Michigan governor and former American Motors Corp. Chairman George Romney, Willard Mitt Romney was born into privilege, raised in a devout Mormon home and educated at Harvard. He made a fortune in business and then entered politics, just like his dad. His first real tragedy was his wife's 1998 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which he calls the worst day of his life. (Her illness is in remission.)
Romney runs his campaign operation like the business executive he was: disciplined, on message and on time -- often early. (The media assigned to follow him got speeding tickets trying to keep up until the campaign mercifully chartered two vans.)