Mitt Romney Gets Serious About Lightening Up

On NBC, viewers got a glimpse inside Mitt Romney’s campaign bus on Thursday night and learned that he likes Cocoa Puffs. The night before on TBS, Romney’s five sons yukked it up on Conan O’Brien’s show, sharing tales of their dad’s pranks.

Mitt Romney greets attendees at the NALEO conference in Orlando, Fla.

On NBC, viewers got a glimpse inside Mitt Romney’s campaign bus on Thursday night and learned that he likes Cocoa Puffs. The night before on TBS, Romney’s five sons yukked it up on Conan O’Brien’s show, sharing tales of their dad’s pranks.

Romney, whose image as a stiff businessman has proven hard to shake, is on a new charm offensive.

It’s standard for presidential candidates to show the lighter side of what they’re like in private, or at least try to, in the friendly realm of late-night talk shows, MTV or ABC’s “The View.”

For Romney, this is no laughing matter.

A poll released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found 47% of voters held an unfavorable opinion of him. Over the last 20 years, Romney is the only presidential candidate viewed more unfavorably than favorably at this point in a campaign, according to Pew.

Romney trails President Obama “by wide margins on connecting well with ordinary people, honesty and truthfulness, consistency, displaying good judgment and several other personal dimensions,” Pew reported.

Romney has made progress. His personal favorability rating rose from 29% in March to 41% this week. But he has a ways to go – and he spent a good deal of time trying to get there over the last week on his tour of small towns in key states.

It’s an urgent task, with Obama already spending heavily on ads trying to define his challenger negatively just as many swing voters are getting to know him. In his latest ad, Obama brands Romney a “corporate raider.”

In a video posted on the web by NBC, “Rock Center with Brian Williams” captured the moment on Saturday when Romney sneaked onto an empty press bus with smooth leather seats. It shows Romney leaving reporters a note saying, “You guys have it way too soft – nice ride. Mitt. P.S. – Erased your hard drives.”

(Obama’s campaign has been needling Romney and his staff in the governor’s office for buying their computer hard drives from the state and erasing their emails from a public server just before his term ended.)

During his small-town tour, Romney visited reporters several times in the rear section of his plane. After light banter for the TV cameras, Romney retreated to the front when questions turned serious. Standing in the aisle just before takeoff on Monday, Romney opened a conversation by joking about his puzzling (and much-lampooned) observation at a rally that Michigan’s trees were just the right height.

“We’re about to go to Michigan,” he said. “When we land, look around, and you’ll see the trees are the right height.”

A reporter asked him to reveal the best advice he ever got on a rope line. “Stop trying to be like yourself,” he said. “Be someone else. Just don’t be you.” He smiled and added, “Just kidding.”

On O’Brien’s show, one of his sons, Matt Romney, retold a story that he’d shared at a pancake breakfast Sunday in Ohio. His dad used to ask his kids to smell butter or whipped cream that seemed to have gone bad, then push their face into it as they tried to take a whiff.

“So he’s basically just smashing your faces into food all the time,” O’Brien responded.

Another son, Tagg Romney, recalled that his father, as a young man, used pink nail polish to paint “HELP” on the soles of a bridegroom’s shoes at a Catholic wedding. Guests saw it when he kneeled down to get the priest’s blessing.

“That’s a very good prank actually,” O’Brien said.

“I’m not sure they’re still friends,” Tagg Romney said.

“No, no, no,” O’Brien said. “The wife would not think that’s funny.”