Mitt Romney sounds like a presidential candidate. Except when he doesn't.
Greeted as a celebrity here Wednesday in the heart of the Republican Deep South, the GOP's 2012 nominee — who still says he's mulling another bid in 2016 — talked to Mississippi State University students like a commencement speaker.
He urged them to "keep life in perspective" and warned that "fame ... comes and goes in a minute."
Looking back at his loss to President Barack Obama, Romney mostly avoided second-guessing his strategy and tactics, at least explicitly. He talked instead about voters he remembers, Secret Service agents he befriended and how he'd write the word "Dad" and draw a sun atop his notes at each debate: reminders of his father and the scriptural encouragement to "let your light so shine."
He gave no timetable for his decision on 2016, though his aides have suggested it could come in the next few weeks.
Yet the 67-year-old shifted easily from grandfatherly counselor to impassioned politician, taking aim at the man who beat him in 2012 and, perhaps even more noteworthy, attacking Obama's potential Democratic successor: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton, Romney declared, acted "cluelessly" on the world stage during her four years as Obama's secretary of state. Repeating his newfound emphasis on helping the poor and middle class, the former Massachusetts governor — long caricatured by opponents as an out-of-touch plutocrat — asked, "How can Secretary Clinton provide opportunity for all if she doesn't know where jobs come from in the first place?"
Romney offered relatively few policy details, and his critiques generally tracked long-standing disputes between the Obama administration and Republicans. But as Romney keeps the GOP and everyone else in suspense over his plans for 2016, those few hours in Mississippi offered a window into his calculations.
During a Q&A, Romney sidestepped a question about what he'd do differently this time. But his stress on the widening gaps between rich and poor — something he didn't talk much about in 2012 — suggests he has indeed thought about it.
"The rich are fine in America," Romney said. "They're fine almost regardless of who's the president."
It's a tacit acknowledgment that his inability to connect with everyday Americans hurt him, as he repeatedly made costly remarks about money and class. Topping the list were his secretly recorded comments at a GOP fundraiser in which he dismissed almost half the nation's citizens as "takers" who don't pay federal income tax.
Romney turned to humor on Wednesday, explaining that he doesn't maintain a public profile to generate speaking fees. "I'm already rich," he said.
In a nod to Republicans' dependence on white voters, who make up a dwindling share of the overall electorate, Romney said GOP candidates "don't spend enough time talking to minorities ... who can help us win the general election," instead talking "to voters who vote in our primaries."
Throughout his speech, as in his other recent public remarks, Romney made repeated references to his faith and his work in the Mormon church, personal testimonies that he didn't always invoke in 2012, when he tried to sell himself as the serious, successful businessman who could spur the U.S. economy.
Earlier, Romney had put his common-man approach to the test at Little Dooey, a popular barbecue joint near the campus. Wearing blue jeans and a casual shirt, he bounded out of a black SUV and shook hands with employees, townspeople and students.
Romney called attention to a student who serves as the school's costumed Bulldog mascot. "This is 'Bully,'" Romney said, telling the young man that at some schools, the students inside the mascot costume must keep their identity secret.
Demonstrating a savvy appreciation for local priorities, Romney was accompanied by MSU head football Coach Dan Mullen and his wife, Megan. Romney just smiled when Mullen, who led his Bulldogs to an Orange Bowl appearance last season, got the louder welcome from a group of students.
As Romney and the Mullens ate, they mused about the similarities among coaching, business and campaigns.
"You didn't have to deal with it much this season, but when (you lose)," Romney said, "you've got to get the team back together: What do you do? How do you do it?"
Then, perhaps betraying his own frustrations with his impending decision, Romney suggested that the coach may have the easier — or at least simpler — task.
"It would be nice if people who run for office, that their leadership experience and what they've accomplished in life would be a bigger part of what people focus on," Romney told Mullen. "But it's not. It's what you say. What you do is not more important than what you say."
"In your business, I mean, you've got a record," he told Mullen. "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 just gotta win."
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