MASON CITY, Iowa - Mitt Romney has confessed his love for “The Honeymooners’’ and “The Keystone Kops.’’ When he visited Music Man Square, a faux 1912 streetscape inspired by the musical, with gaslights and a candy shop, he was flush with excitement, jumping atop a metal chair to marvel at the scene.
“What a thrill this is, at this historic spot today,’’ he gushed. “I feel like breaking into ‘Seventy-six Trombones.’ ’’
Newt Gingrich, under constant attack from his rivals, has not had to restrain any desire to belt show tunes. If he gets animated, it’s likely he wandered into another lecture on 19th-century history.
“Posse Comitatus is an 1878 law that was actually a deal cut with the South to end the effort to enforce civil rights, so now it has a mythic proportion,’’ he intoned in the basement of a pizza shop in Decorah, a small town in eastern Iowa.
Despite the best efforts of consultants, strategists, and press handlers who have sought to eliminate the imperfections and soften the foibles of the Republican presidential candidates, the frontrunners have inevitably fallen back into the styles most comfortable to them. Those contrasts seem only to have intensified in the final days before the Iowa caucuses Tuesday.
In diners, factories, and gas stations, Romney has been the buttoned-down, nostalgic business school graduate who rarely wanders off script except to ask data-driven questions or recite patriotic songs. Gingrich has remained the impetuous, expansive former professor who often meanders off his message to muse about conservative theorists and Supreme Court cases.
Ron Paul, ever the uncompromising libertarian, has blithely ignored his critics and spoken extemporaneously about engaging in diplomacy with Iran and legalizing drugs. Even when he was interrupted by Occupy Des Moines protesters at an event honoring veterans, he stuck firmly to his constitutional principles.
“Freedom of speech,’’ he said. “Ain’t it wonderful?’’
Rick Santorum, campaigning in a sweater vest and cowboy boots, has been most at ease discussing his socially conservative views. In Muscatine, explaining his opposition to same-sex marriage, he said, “It was made for a man and a woman because they bring different things to the equation. That’s the way God made us.’’
Gingrich, meanwhile, has flaunted his knowledge, often mentioning the names of obscure policymakers and influential thinkers, without explaining who they are to voters in coffee shops and malls. At a fried-chicken-and-pizza buffet in Le Mars, he said he had learned to appreciate the importance of using data to measure the effectiveness of policy.
But “I sort of it knew it,’’ he said. “I took a 60-hour course under Edwards Deming years ago.’’ (Deming, of course, was a statistician and management guru who died in 1993.)
Some voters said they were impressed with the former speaker’s intelligence and grasp of history.
Others, however, were left wanting a warmer presence.
When Kristi Miles, a 39-year-old customer service agent for Delta Airlines, asked Gingrich at a mall in Mason City what he could do to “support God in America and promote our heritage,’’ Gingrich launched into a long denunciation of “judges drunk on power’’ and urged her to read his 54-page paper on “rebalancing the judiciary.’’
‘The answer could have been a little bit more exciting.’Kristi Miles On Newt Gingrich
“You’ll see it’s a very complicated paper,’’ he said. “We spent nine years working on it.’’
Miles said she was glad Gingrich responded to her question but hoped he would speak more personally.
“The answer could have been a little bit more exciting, a little bit more flair,’’ she said. “I appreciate he talked about the three different branches of government. I would have just appreciated a little more expansion.’’
After his events, Gingrich has invited voters to take a photo with him and his wife, Callista. Otherwise, he has shunned small talk with voters like Glenn L. Smith, an 86-year-old retired mechanic, who stopped Gingrich at a chocolate shop in Algona and tried to talk about guns.
“I’ve got a .357,’’ Smith said.
“Good,’’ Gingrich said.
“And I used to take motor homes all around the country, and that was in my suitcase whenever it could be,’’ Smith said.
“Good,’’ Gingrich replied, strolling on to the next voter.
Romney, who has tried to loosen up and bond more intimately with voters, has splashed his stump speeches with more personal anecdotes. He talks of driving his mother’s car -“Mrs. Romney’s Grocery Getter’’ - as a teenager, and the abiding love of country instilled in him by his parents.
“They wanted me to fall in love with America,’’ he said. “And I did.’’
Shuttling back and forth between Iowa and New Hampshire, whose primary is Jan. 10, he often guesses the ages of children and teenagers.
“You guys must be 14?’’ he said to three boys who were tossing a football on a lawn in Berlin, N.H. (Nope. They were 11, 12, and 12.)
At an agricultural supply store in Lancaster, N.H., Romney stopped to talk to Jessica Hebert, who told him she showed dairy cows. It was as if a new spreadsheet had opened in Romney’s head. Immediately, he set about calculating their output.
“If you had a prized cow,’’ he asked, “how many gallons would it produce?’’
She said about 100 pounds a day, which Romney tried to translate into gallons, calculating aloud.
Finally, he settled on about 12 gallons per day.
“That’s a lot of milk,’’ he said, and recounted that his uncle once had a Jersey cow in Idaho that produced 14 gallons of milk a day.
Buoyed by his rising poll numbers in Iowa, Romney has seemed more at ease in recent days, and has taken to reminiscing about family road trips. Even so, he hasn’t fully shed his calibrated side. When an 8-year-old with a Romney sticker on his forehead asked: “Is it hard running for the president?’’ the candidate hedged.
“That’s a darn good question,’’ Romney said. “And the answer is yes, and no. Ha ha ha. Sounds like a politician. I apologize.’’Brian C. Mooney of the Globe staff also contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.