Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney applauds his wife Ann as… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )
Reporting from Charleston, S.C. — In case you've missed it, Mitt Romney is ready to dish.
The famously buttoned-up presidential candidate, frequently described by voters as too aloof and wealthy to understand their problems, has long shied away from public introspection. But Romney suddenly seems determined to let America in — delving into his faith and personal life on the campaign trail while engaging in a dizzying series of interviews that will be capped with an appearance Monday night on "Late Show with David Letterman."
For several weeks now in the early-voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, the Romney campaign has wooed voters with an ad featuring home movies of Romney nestled against his wife, Ann, and cuddling his children. Courtesy of Parade magazine, Americans have learned of his cupboard vices (low-fat chocolate milk and brown sugar Chex bites), what he drinks in the morning (hot chocolate), the most recent book on his nightstand ("Boomerang" by Michael Lewis) and his silliest teenage prank (setting up a formal dinner for his future wife in the middle of a Michigan highway).
The clean-living candidate — barred by his Mormon faith from drinking or smoking — revealed to People magazine that he "tasted a beer and tried a cigarette once as a wayward teenager, and never did it again." Before a Myrtle Beach, S.C., audience this weekend he reminisced about falling in love with America on childhood road trips through the national parks in a Rambler station wagon, during which his family would "put the seats down sometimes at night — sleep in the car."
And urged by his host to "get personal" during an interview with "Fox News Sunday" this weekend, Romney described learning in 1998 that his wife suffered from multiple sclerosis, which he said was the toughest moment of his life.
"We could see that she had real balance problems, and she didn't have feeling in places she should have feeling, and [the doctor] stepped out of the room and we stood up and hugged each other," the candidate told host Chris Wallace as he described the moments of uncertainty in the doctor's office that day. "I said to her, as long as it's not something fatal, I'm just fine.… I'm happy in life as long as I've got my soul mate with me."
Broaching an area that he most often leaves to his wife on the campaign trail, Romney also described her fatigue at that time and her difficulty with basic tasks like cooking: "I said, look, I don't care what the meals are like. You know, I like cold cereal and peanut butter sandwiches. We could do fine with that as long as we have each other."
Romney's decision to get personal coincided with the popularity surge in the last month of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who now leads Romney in national polls. Initially Romney's emphasis on his family and his 42-year marriage was widely interpreted as a not-so-subtle dig at Gingrich, who is on his third marriage.
But during a recent debate in Des Moines, Romney offered another compelling reason for opening up: to blunt the attacks from opponents alleging that he has no core.
His new openness has been most noticeable in his increasing mentions of his Mormon faith, a topic that he rarely raised without prompting during his first presidential run (with the exception of a formal speech in 2007 that was meant to put the issue to rest).
When knocking on voters' doors in Manchester, N.H., on a recent day, he surprised reporters by comparing the experience to all the doors he had knocked on "without much success" while he served as a Mormon missionary in France in the mid-1960s.
A week later, when asked by a voter in Hudson, N.H., to describe an experience that had changed him, Romney described living in France on $110 a month, without access to basic plumbing. And he has spoken more frequently about offering guidance to struggling members of his church while serving in a leadership role in Massachusetts.
The emphasis on Romney's Mormon roots is a risky one: It could educate some voters about what formed Romney's views but remind others of his politically controversial religion. Polls show that a significant portion of evangelical voters in the key states of Iowa and South Carolina remains uncomfortable with Romney's faith.
In Greenville, S.C., on Friday, Romney said he hoped voters who had questions about his religion would over time see in him a person "who has a faith in a creator, who has a family, who cares about their family, shares their values."
Sherry Singleton, who described herself as a Southern Baptist-raised Christian, praised Romney's "good family values" after watching him speak in her hometown of Myrtle Beach. But said she was still looking to get beyond what she described as his "'Let's feel good about America, let's make America great' talk."
She says she has clearer sense of Gingrich in part because he's concise and direct about where he stands.
"When I came here today I was thinking Gingrich is the guy," she said. But after listening to Romney, she added, "I like him a lot more than I did."
Still, she didn't feel like she knew "all that much more about him," she said, and hoped he'd delve a little deeper with voters before election day.
Margaret Wicker of Longs, S.C., said she had thought of Romney as "aloof." But she said she appreciated Romney's new openness about his personal background, his faith and his faults. "The people need to know that," she said.
After watching Romney and his wife onstage in Myrtle Beach, Wicker said she was most impressed by his humility. Gingrich, she said with a laugh, "doesn't have a humble bone in his body."