ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Mitt Romney walked off the debate stage Wednesday night to find that his staff had already lined the hall backstage, greeting him with applause.
Facing off against President Barack Obama in Denver, Romney had been the candidate they had longed to see all year: funny (joking about the “romantic" evening he and Obama were spending on the president’s 20th wedding anniversary), commanding (challenging Obama on taxes and government spending) and even warm (placing his right hand over his heart at the end of the debate, in an homage to his supporters in the crowd).
On Friday night, at a rally here, his campaign seemed determined not to let that more emotive, three-dimensional Mitt Romney slip away. Before the crowd of several thousand, Romney shared stories of friends who had died.
Perhaps his most moving anecdote — about David Oparowski, a 14-year-old boy with leukemia to whom Romney had ministered — had first made an appearance at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., when David’s parents talked about how Romney had tended to their son, a member of his church ward in Belmont, Mass. But Romney had never before mentioned the experience on the stump.
Romney recounted how, as he sat in David’s hospital room, the teenager called him “Brother Romney" and asked him about “what’s next."
“I talked to him about what I believe is next," said Romney, recalling that a few days later, he got a call from David asking if he would help write his will.
“So I went to David’s bedside and got a piece of legal paper, made it look very official," he continued. “And then David proceeded to tell me what he wanted to give his friends. Talked about his fishing rod, and who would get that. He talked about his skateboard, who’d get that. And his rifle, that went to his brother."
He concluded: “I loved that young man."
Romney also talked about the recent death of a graduate-school friend who had become a quadriplegic, and a sharpshooter killed in Afghanistan.
An adviser said Romney decided on his own that he wanted to tell those stories onstage. But the move was also couched in a broader campaign strategy to encourage Romney to reveal a more caring, personal side of himself, a counter to his reputation as a data-driven technocrat.
To that end, on Thursday, Romney also appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, where he seemed to repudiate his own comments about “47 percent" of Americans who, he said at a secretly recorded fundraiser in May, considered themselves “victims" and were dependent on the government.
“I said something that’s just completely wrong," Romney said, referring to the comments and adding that, “my life has shown that I care about 100 percent."
In recent weeks, the campaign has begun showing a 10-minute biographical video before rallies and speeches. Romney is shown roughhousing with his young sons, encouraging his wife and following the public service footsteps of his father, George Romney, the former governor of Michigan. In one scene, Romney begins talking about his wife, gushing, “Ahh, she’s gorgeous." Russ Schriefer, the senior strategist charged with making the film, said he got that footage simply by showing Romney a picture of Ann as a teenager and asking him to reflect.
Ann Romney, who has privately argued that the campaign should display the empathetic man she loves, has also become a vocal public advocate for her husband’s “extraordinary compassion for others," as she said Friday night.
“I was so thrilled at the debate for people to see my husband unfiltered without any negative ads, without any media trying to interpret what he says and what he feels in his heart," she said.
Appearing buoyed by his widely acclaimed debate performance, the Romney on display this week was a looser, more relaxed one. The day after the debate, he could be seen joking with aides on his charter plane, and he made two unscheduled stops: one Thursday morning to address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Denver, and another Friday evening, when he and Ann Romney stopped at La Teresita, a well-known Cuban restaurant in Tampa, to greet diners.