NEW YORK – Mitt Romney has been on the national political stage for nearly a decade — through two presidential bids, countless campaign events and millions spent on TV ads. But the likely Republican presidential nominee still isn't well-known to most voters.
So now he's trying to fix that.
With less than 100 days until the Nov. 6 election, Romney is starting to introduce himself to them in earnest — through a combination of carefully selected media appearances and biographical ads — before President Barack Obama's efforts to define him in a negative light cripple his candidacy.
"I got the chance to start my own business ... I went off to have the chance at running the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 ... The real experience was in Massachusetts," the former governor says in a new television commercial released Tuesday that features him on the campaign trail, in factories and with his wife, Ann, by his side. "I want to use those experiences to help Americans have a better future."
Until now, Romney has emphasized his record at the private equity firm Bain Capital, giving Obama and other Democrats the chance to portray him in their ads as an out-of-touch corporate raider and job killer. The new ad is an effort to deflect that barrage by letting him round out that biography by touching aspects of it that he hasn't stressed in the past.
The ad marked the start of a new phase for the Republican presidential candidate as he looks to move from a seven-day, three-nation trip abroad and into a period where the media glare will shine even brighter as he prepares to announce his vice presidential running mate in the run-up to the GOP convention where he'll accept the party's presidential nomination.
In what may be his most extensive series of national broadcast interviews this campaign, Romney and his wife spent much of the trip answering questions from TV anchors on everything from her part ownership of a horse competing in the Olympics to whether they were each other's true love (The answer? Yes.)
In one appearance, Romney touched on the challenge he faces in introducing himself to voters as the clock ticks down on the campaign and he runs against an incumbent who is universally recognized and generally liked by most voters.
"You know, I've been on 'The Tonight Show' and Letterman and 'The View' and I do some of those things to get better known," Romney said when NBC anchor Brian Williams asked if he was a "hidden man." Romney said he expected voters to tune in more after Labor Day. "Most folks won't really get to see me until the debates and will get a better sense of the character that I have," he said.
It was an unusual acknowledgement for a major party's presidential standard-bearer this late in a campaign, but one borne out in recent polling.
A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in mid-July found that 31 percent of registered voters were either undecided or hadn't heard enough about Romney when asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him.
The new ad is meant to boost those numbers. It's a striking shift from the negativity that has marked much of the TV advertising in the campaign so far this year.
Romney granted wide-ranging interviews on the trip to many news organizations the campaign has largely avoided until now. He spoke to the three major broadcast networks and CNN after spending months favoring venues like the conservative-friendly Fox News over other cable and network TV outlets.
Even so, he's only going so far.
Romney gave no interviews to American-based print media and largely avoided most of the U.S.-based reporters who accompanied him on the trip, taking just three questions from them in London and none during his subsequent stops in Israel and Poland. The lack of access produced a dust-up between the traveling press corps and campaign staffers, with a spokesman at one point telling a reporter to "shove it."
Romney got some favorable coverage, especially from CNN's Piers Morgan, who asked softer questions to the Romneys outside London's scenic Royal Naval College. ("Was your best deal the moment you asked this lady to marry you?" was one such query.) But the rest of the interviews were a mixed bag, contributing to a string of gaffes that came to characterize the trip.
For one, Romney's controversial musings about London's preparedness to host the Olympics came during the interview with Williams. Romney also disclosed information in other interviews that undoubtedly will provide fodder for Democratic operatives.
Romney continued to insist he would not release more of his income tax returns and told ABC News that he had been audited by the IRS in the past. Romney also ducked when asked whether he had paid less than 13.9 percent of his income in taxes, saying he hadn't calculated that but would be "happy to go back and look." Earlier this year, Romney released his 2010 tax return, which indicated he had paid just 13.9 percent tax on income of $21.6 million — a rate substantially lower than what most Americans pay on far less income.
On CBS News, Romney was asked to respond to a Newsweek magazine cover that referred to him as a wimp.
"If I worried about what the media said I wouldn't get much sleep. I sleep pretty well," he said.
The Obama campaign, for its part, happily distributed information about media access when Obama, then an Illinois senator and the likely Democratic presidential nominee, took a major international trip in the summer of 2008. The campaign said Obama held four news conferences in four countries with a total of 25 questions and did seven network television interviews and a number of print interviews.
Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens, who traveled abroad with Romney, promised the candidate would do several print interviews before the general election. "He gave a lot of interviews over here," Stevens said.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Warsaw, Poland, and Steve Peoples and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius in Washington contributed to this report.
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