INDIANOLA, Iowa — Tell me, Lanae Price asked Mitt Romney, how politicians who earn huge six-figure salaries have any compassion or sensitivity to the millions of folks who're struggling to pay their mortgages and fill their gas tanks?
"It concerns me that so many of the people we have elected into office or are running for office cannot even relate to what the average American is going through," the Winterset, Iowa, homemaker said.
Many voters in the key early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina share that concern. The candidates, after they step out of toasty volunteer-driven vans, hotel rooms or the cushioned seats of their chartered private planes, are struggling to respond to it.
Romney, speaking at a breakfast at the local country club that morning, stepped up and explained to Price why, although his net worth has been estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars, he understands the plight of the middle class.
When he was governor of Massachusetts, he recalled, one of his friends advised, "If you want to help people, find a way to get everyone health insurance."
Romney's friend wasn't exactly middle class; he was the founder of the Staples office supply chain. Romney called other acquaintances at JP Morgan, the 2002 Winter Olympics and elsewhere, and those talks helped Massachusetts create a system that requires all its residents to have health care.
Price, whose chief connection with Staples probably is buying school supplies, smiled politely and sat down.
"I felt he didn't answer the question completely," she said later. "The people who run for president are not doing anything on behalf of regular people. They can't relate to what we're going through."
Although none of them probably is as baffled by a supermarket scanner as former President George H.W. Bush was, Romney doesn't have to stand in line at the local sub shop for lunch, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton probably doesn't pump her own gas and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama probably hasn't been out hunting for a parking space at the mall lately.
Still, they're all trying hard to show that the everyday frustrations of routine life are their frustrations, too, and that they share everyone's desire for a warm and pleasant holiday season.
Sometimes a candidate offers a holiday-themed ad like the one showing Mike Huckabee in a red sweater with "Silent Night" playing in the background, asking, "Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you've been seeing?" "What really matters," Huckabee says, "is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends."
Sometimes candidates provide heartfelt testimonials from the folks who know 'em best. In one such ad, Clinton's mother Dorothy hopes that everyone will know "what a good person she is," and a new Web site, thehillaryiknow.com, offers vignettes from people the former first lady has touched.
They all want to show how much they care. Romney tells audiences how he once got a Christmastime call from someone who knew his family and needed help.
Romney, then a Boston businessman, gathered his 8- and 10-year-old sons into the family's Ford Torino and found some firewood for the family in need. They all went back the next day, Romney said, and, "My sons picked out some gifts for the mom to give a little something for the kids," as well as some cash.
Clinton is countering with her own compassion campaign. She showed up in Iowa last week with Joe Ward, a New York resident who described the horror of his young son's rare illness, and how tough it was to pay the bill. A call to Clinton's Senate office helped pay for the care the next day.
"I know there is a God in heaven," Ward told Clinton at a Des Moines rally last week. "He led us to you."
There's little evidence, however, that these compassion-a-ramas make much political difference.
"I'm an emotional person, and these things say that person is something like me," said Sharon Brummer, a retired Indianola, Iowa, teacher.
But she also warned that a candidate whom she considers somewhat cold can't suddenly turn on a pilot light and heat up a room.
"Hillary is trying to do that," Brummer said. "So she seems staged."
"There are a million stories like this," added Bob Cataldo, a county risk manager from Des Moines. "I think every candidate's got one."
Price, who asked Romney the sensitivity question, says she'll probably vote for him anyway.
"Right now he's probably the best," she said. "I don't see any candidate who can really relate to the average American."
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