STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mitt Romney staged a campaign-style swing Wednesday through a Deep South state that spurned him in the 2012 Republican primary, calling for a national war on poverty, testing a few attack lines directed at Hillary Rodham Clinton, and declaring his fondness for pulled pork.
It was the first opportunity for Romney to show off a new, somewhat looser stump style as he weighs whether to seek the White House for a third time. He appeared more at ease than he typically did when he was the 2012 Republican nominee, joking about his personal wealth and discussing his Mormon faith.
He told offbeat tales of his failed presidential bid and quipped about advice he got during the last campaign from a man who urged him to grow a little stubble to appear “more sexy.”
“As if I needed that,” Romney deadpanned.
In a trip to the poorest state in the union, Romney also renewed his call for a national fight against what he calls “chronic generational poverty,’’ and began elaborating on the kinds of policies he would push if he mounts a third presidential campaign.
Top Republican activists and donors have been eager to hear Romney provide a clearer rationale for why he thinks he deserves another shot — and how this campaign would be different.
To make his most expansive appearance since he told wealthy donors several weeks ago that he was contemplating a campaign, Romney visited the campus of Mississippi State University, in a state where he placed third in the 2012 party primary, behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
He batted down repeated questions from reporters about his intentions for another White House campaign. When a moderator asked him how his campaign would be different from his failed campaigns of the past, he said, “That’s another question I won’t answer.”
But he did begin sketching out some of the ways he would attempt to combat poverty, after blaming the growing disparity in income on a failure of “liberal policies.”
“The rich have done historically well,” he said. “I’m concerned about the middle class and the poor in this country.”
If he runs, Romney said he would push for more and better high school educational opportunities, including charter schools, and incentives for businesses to hire people who haven’t had a job before. One of the areas he grew most passionate about was placing more emphasis on two-parent families as a way to alleviate poverty. He also urged students to have a “life coach.”
“We have to make sure our government programs aren’t creating incentives for people not to get married,” he said, citing housing vouchers and other federal programs. “And they do right now.”
But the most striking aspect of the performance was that Romney, often charicatured since his days as Massachusetts governor as robotic and programmed, made a greater effort to appear to be more comfortable in his own skin.
“You may have heard that I’m thinking of running for president again,” Romney said, to loud applause. “I don’t miss the annoying press. I don’t miss more than 300 nights away in a hotel room. I’m not even thinking about the speaking fees I can earn. As you no doubt heard, I’m already rich.”
Romney highlighted his vision for sustained economic prosperity and outlined broad foreign policy goals, criticizing what he considers weak global leadership by President Obama and Clinton. He said that Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination, “cluelessly pressed a reset button for Russia, which smiled and then invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation.”
Calling Obama’s recent State of the Union address “naïve at best and deceptive at worst,” he criticized the foreign policy of both Obama and Clinton.
“ISIS represents a new level of threat given its oil revenues, vast territory, and ability to recruit even in the West,” he said, referring to Islamic State, the army of fundamentalist militants that is occupying parts of Syria and Iraq. He also cited a more assertive China and America’s reduced nuclear arms capabilities as threats.
“Doesn’t the president understand that some of what we are seeing in the world is in part the result of his timid foreign policy, of walking away from his red line in Syria, of paring back our military budget, and of insulting friends like Israel and Poland?” Romney said. “Strong American leadership is desperately needed for the world, and for America.”
In the last several weeks, Romney has been testing the reaction to a possible third presidential campaign.
His advisers met in Boston last week and went as far as to discuss where campaign headquarters might be located. Romney also is trying to sell an 11,000-square-foot home he is building in La Jolla, Calif. The house, and its car elevator, was used in 2012 to portray him as rich and out of touch.
Before his appearance on campus, Romney stopped by Little Dooey, a barbecue restaurant that had a sign outside welcoming him. Wearing Hudson jeans and an open-collared shirt, he stepped out of a black SUV and quickly declared, “I like pulled pork.”
After ordering a sandwich — with “red sauce, not South Carolina’s mustard sauce” — Romney was standing at a soda machine when he was asked about his thoughts on running for president.
“Oh my goodness. What I’m thinking about is, ‘Do I get Diet Coke, or do I get the real thing?’ ” he said, adding a bit of regular Coke to his cup. “There we go, a little taste of the good stuff, guys.”
He sat down with Dan Mullen, head coach of the Mississippi State football team, which went 10-3 in the regular season.
“The day after a loss. . . ” Romney said. “You’ve got to bring the team back and get them up. What do you do? How do you do it?”
“You’ll review what went right, what went wrong,” Mullen said. “After a game, you don’t sleep a whole lot.”
“I know what that’s like,” Romeny responded.
“In your business, you’ve got a record,” Romney said to the coach. “I mean it all comes down to your record. You can be the sweetest-talking person in the world, but unless you’ve got a record, you’re in trouble.”
“You’ve gotta win,” Mullen said. “You’ve gotta win.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.