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    Joan Vennochi

    Mitt Romney’s family card

    MITT ROMNEY’S family is back to playing a starring role in his campaign, as Romney tries to lure Iowa voters with this pitch: “My family is better than Newt Gingrich’s family.’’

    Romney’s latest effort comes via an ad that features his wife and children to illustrate his contention that unlike Gingrich, he is a man of constancy and steadiness. That he is, in his constancy and steadiness, willing to change course whenever politically necessary.

    Up until recently, Team Romney was telling the press the Romney clan would be less visible than it was in 2008.


    “The campaign’s interest and focus is on the economy message, not so much on showing the entire dimension of the family. It just doesn’t fit,’’ an unnamed adviser told The New York Times in a lengthy Dec. 3 magazine piece. In that spirit, the Romney campaign wouldn’t let Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, respond to a Twitter post from the daughters of Jon Huntsman inviting him to “tailgate for the next debate.’’

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    As Rick Perry might say: Oops. The family-in-the-background strategy was mapped out before Gingrich started surging in national and state polls, including Iowa. Now, Romney and surrogates like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are using family to hammer Gingrich and raise questions about his potential to embarrass the country. Romney is putting his beautiful wife, Ann, and the photogenic Romney brood up against the thrice-married Gingrich. Romney also mentions faith in the ad as another example of his steadiness over time. That’s his way of drawing another unflattering contrast to Gingrich, who was raised Lutheran, became a southern Baptist and then recently converted to Catholicism.

    Inserting religion into the political picture in Iowa can be risky, given resistance to Romney’s Mormon faith from Christian evangelicals. When it comes to the family issue, Romney appears to have a strong hand to play, but it’s not risk-free either.

    The affection between Romney and his wife of 43 years comes across as deep and genuine. The tableau of handsome sons, their wives, and children is Camelot-worthy. But is family perfection what voters really need from Romney? A few skeletons in the Romney family closet might actually help his cause. If there’s no batty aunt, isn’t there at least one mall-obsessed teenager or tantrum-throwing grandchild? Republicans, Democrats, and Independents could all relate to that.

    Part of Romney’s problem as a candidate is that he already comes across as too “perfect.’’ If a strand of hair falls over his eyes, it’s news. Recent anecdotes do little to warm him up. This is a guy who scrapes the cheese off pizza and peels the skin off chicken before he consumes it. It may be healthy, but it’s not much fun for less disciplined diners to contemplate. On the campaign trail, he gives off vibes of a good-looking but plastic-encased couch. Every once in awhile, a spring breaks through, as it did when Romney sat down with Fox News anchor Brett Baier. In that encounter, Romney showed an unpleasant testiness that is at least more authentic than the fake grin and oddly riveted gaze that is part of his regular debate persona.


    Satirist Andy Borowitz recently zinged Romney in a piece headlined “Falling in polls, Romney considers adultery.’’ It addresses two of Romney’s problems - his uptight image and willingness to do anything to win.

    Faced with the Gingrich challenge, the Romney campaign decided it had to do something. Since the two rivals are serial flip-floppers when it comes to policy, that left the personal as grounds for attack. Gingrich has been married three times and the details are less than flattering. However, that part of his life story is not news, and in this campaign it only partly defines who he is. Unlike Herman Cain, Gingrich has already demonstrated an ability to talk seriously about issues. As they did with Bill Clinton, voters may be able to get past the character issue.

    Remember, a less than picture-perfect family history didn’t end Ronald Reagan’s presidential dreams. He was the first divorced man to win the White House and he and his adult children went through highly publicized bouts of estrangement. Rather than set Reagan apart, that made his family more like everyone else’s.

    Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.