BEXLEY, Ohio — Mitt Romney's getting personal and getting tough.
As he swings across the country seeking votes in Super Tuesday states, the Republican presidential candidate's slick campaign machine is getting some fine-tuning.
In recent days, Romney talked about his wife's illness and told stories about dad and the grandkids. He positioned himself as a staunch conservative, sprinkling his speeches with assurances of more individual freedom and insisting he has bright line contrasts with President Barack Obama.
If this image tweak — designed to correct potentially fatal flaws in the ever-resilient Romney's campaign style — works, he could emerge from Tuesday's 10 primaries and caucuses the unstoppable favorite for the GOP nomination.
But if he can't overcome the idea that he's (a) a conservative only because he needs to be and (b) his wealth and privileged upbringing make him insensitive to the common person, he's in deep political trouble.
Signs are that his latest strategy may work. He won Washington's Saturday caucuses with surprising ease. The changes may be working, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
"At the moment he's doing better," Brown said. But his rivals keep hitting him where it could hurt, and a lot of voters still need convincing.
"To a lot of people he seems like a rich guy from afar," said Brad Massey, a Grove City, Ohio, attorney.
They remember comments a week ago in Michigan, when Romney said his wife Ann had "a couple of Cadillacs" and he cited his friendship with NASCAR owners.
Last week, he tried to be more compassionate.
In Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, he took 11 questions from the audience at Capital University. But what hushed the crowd was the answer to a questioner who told Romney "I know you have a heart," and asked him to show it.
Romney didn't hesitate. "One of the challenges," he said, is that in campaigns, "most people just see you in the debates.
"And so we stand there all in our suits, you know, we're all wearing white shirts, blue suits, black shoes, and either a red or blue tie. We all stand there looking somewhat alike and get 60 seconds to answer questions like how do we bring peace to the world?"
There's more to me, Romney insisted.
"Ann and I fell in love young, we're still in love. We have a marriage that is still filled with love. And her happiness is my happiness. I care more about that than anything in the world," he said of his wife of 42 years.
He recalled how she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about 16 years ago. Today she's doing well, and he described how the couple can't get enough of their extended family.
"Grandkids are fabulous! You don't have to change their diapers and, and they love you," he said. "When I turn into my, my, my kids' homes and my grandkids are there, they come running up and give me a big hug. It's so exciting and I love my 16 grandkids."
The audience seemed almost stunned. But if anyone thought he was going soft, he shifted gears seamlessly to demonstrate he's a solid conservative.
"I'll protect the Second Amendment," he told someone who asked about his stance on guns. "I have guns myself. Not going to tell you where they are. Don't have them on myself either, all right. But we have a right in this country to bear arms."
He repeated this kind of talk in Fargo, N.D., Idaho Falls, Idaho, Bellevue, Wash., wherever he campaigned.
Some voters were impressed. "This campaign is really about family values, and he's showing who he is," said Jason Wolf, a Fargo department store manager.
But he still has convincing to do. Loren Warwick, a retired Bellevue auto dealer, found Romney "arrogant" said that despite the down-home talk, "I would doubt it if he can relate to most people."
The way to overcome those doubts, said Fred Wright, a Moorhead, Minn., real estate manager, is to keep showing that personal side without getting maudlin.
"He has to make sure he keeps on being himself. Don't try to be something you're not," he said.
Romney may have a bigger challenge overcoming qualms about his conservatism.
Rivals keep hammering at his record as a center-right governor of Massachusetts. He once was sympathetic to abortion rights and signed into law a state health care plan that served as the model for the 2010 federal health care law Republicans hate.
In Pasco, Wash., Thursday, Santorum maintained Romney's Feb. 28 Michigan primary victory was a creation of "a good old boy network" that scrounged for delegates and didn't play by the rules.
"Since Gov. Romney is new to being a conservative, maybe he didn't understand that," Santorum said. "This is what we're up against — the old boy network. I've been up against them before."
Throughout the week, though, Romney offered philosophies that sounded almost identical to those of Santorum. "I want to restore the principles of freedom," he told an Idaho Falls crowd.
Discussing Iran's nuclear threat, he told the Bexley audience: "We must communicate that we have military capacity and we have that in our stockpile of options in a situation like this."
The gritty talk appeals to some conservatives.
"This guy is strong. He hasn't compromised in six years," said Alfred Gunn, a Gig Harbor, Wash., retiree.
Romney's getting closer to winning over such folks. How close could determine how he fares Tuesday.
"I'm excited about his commitment to smaller government," said Brad Ness, president of a Fargo commemorative firearms company. "But when you compare him to others, I wonder whether he's truly committed to the conservative cause.
"I want to hear more."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
Follow David Lightman on Twitter: @LightmanDavid