By KASIE HUNT, Associated Press
BURBANK, Calif. (AP) — Mitt Romney doesn't always wear suits these days, and his hair isn't always so perfectly coiffed. He shows up at NASCAR events and tweets pictures of himself eating Subway sandwiches. His wife, Ann, gushes in a new online video about the start of their four-decade old "love story."
The Republican presidential front-runner's latest efforts to show his more personal — critics would say more human — side were on display Tuesday as he sat down with a late-night talk show host for the first time since 2010.
"I can do you a favor with this," Romney said on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," as the host pressed him about his list of potential running mates. "I'll choose David Letterman."
Expect more attempts at levity in the coming weeks as the likely GOP nominee shifts toward the general election and starts to introduce himself in earnest to voters who don't know him nearly as well as the Republican primary electorate does.
Aides and allies long have insisted that there's a likable, personable, even fun Romney underneath the persistent image of a buttoned-down, multi-millionaire businessman that Republican voters got to know during his failed bid for the nomination in 2008. This time, the former Massachusetts governor has sought to shake the rap, even among some supporters, that he's awkward, boring and overly scripted.
Romney's advisers downplay any notion of a makeover or a major shift in the campaign. And they publicly insist they are still focused on the primary race even though their boss is all but certain to clinch the nomination.
But aides also are mindful that when he does get the 1,144 convention delegates needed to secure the party nod, the general electorate will start to pay closer attention and some voters will take their first serious look at Romney. The campaign is looking for ways to attract independent voters who will be critical in the campaign against President Barack Obama.
Just 38 percent of independents said they had considerable interest in the primary fight, according to a February AP-GfK poll. The rest had only a passing interest or no interest at all. That's far lower than partisans - 73 percent of Republicans said they had a great deal or quite a bit of interest in the election.
So, the campaign is discussing possible ways to show Americans a more complete picture of Romney, from giving longer TV interviews with his five sons and 16 grandkids by his side, to having his wife appear on daytime talk or cooking shows.
Ann Romney, whom the candidate introduces as "my sweetheart" at nearly every campaign stop, is likely to play a big role in introducing Romney to a wider audience; aides say her mere presence softens his sometimes rough edges. That's why she's been a near constant presence on the campaign trail, taking the microphone to tell the story of how they fell in love and how he'd call while away on business trips to tell her that raising their children was more important than his job.
She defends him, too. Asked Wednesday to name the most common mischaracterization of her husband, she said: "That he's actually stiff."
"That's the funny thing. He is, when the TV cameras go off and he gets in the car, he is funny. He jokes all the time," she told a Wisconsin radio station. "He plays practical jokes. He is the furthest thing from that. That is a complete misrepresentation of him. Over time maybe people will be able to see him in a different."
To be sure, Romney's attempts over the past year to show his regular-guy side — that he's more than just a wealthy Northeastern businessman who governed a liberal state as a moderate — sometimes fall flat.
When he showed up at the Daytona 500 earlier this month, he said he didn't know much about car racing but knew a few of the team owners. His sense of humor is sometimes goofily awkward, like when he pretended a waitress at a New Hampshire diner had pinched his behind when she hadn't. And he once referred to Ann as a "heavyweight" champion — a remark she gracefully brushed away when she took the microphone back.
"If this goes on much longer, I will be the heavyweight champion," she said. "Things are getting a little tight. This is what happens if you're on the campaign trail."