By Ashley Parker
The New York Times
DES MOINES, Iowa
Romney urged them to focus on their own lives rather than campaign for him. ‘So we kind of took his advice and decided that we’d go against it,” Matt Romney said .
Four of Mitt Romney’s five sons – Tagg, 41; Matt, 40; Josh, 36; and Craig, 30 – were sitting in a hotel room here on the eve of the Iowa caucuses last week, debating which of them was most likely to carry the Romney mantle of politics and public service. The verdict was Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, or maybe Josh. But that’s where things got tricky.
“Someone needs to run for leader of the brothers,” Matt joked.
“Arm-wrestle for it,” Craig suggested.
The banter was playful, but it hinted at a larger truth about their place in the campaign. Even in a year when the brothers were supposed to have receded from public view, particularly when compared with their father’s campaign four years ago, they have become an essential part of what sells the Mitt Romney story.
They stump for him across the country as surrogates; they offer a square-jawed, Christmas-card-ready backdrop for him onstage; and they telling humanizing “Dad” stories, as well as recite his basic talking points. The Romney boys: charming, amusing and relentlessly on message.
“I think one thing we offer is a perspective on his character,” Matt said.
Four years ago, Romney’s sons were a major presence on the campaign trail. They crisscrossed Iowa in an RV nicknamed the Mitt Mobile and chronicled their G-rated escapades on their Five Brothers blog.
Tagg quit his job to hit the trail full time, and Josh made it to each of Iowa’s 99 counties.
But in an age when complicated, messy families increasingly seem like the new normal, there was a sense four years ago that the Romney brothers were too strapping, too wholesome and too perfect somehow.
“I wish that were true,” Tagg said. (In a teenage act that counts as rebellion in the Romney family, Tagg once borrowed his father’s car without his permission after a church dance to get ice cream with some friends, and promptly nicked another car in the parking lot. It was an expensive dent that he worked all summer to pay off.)
But is there a difference this time around?
“We’ve put on a lot of weight since 2008,” Craig joked.
Turning serious, Josh talked about when their mother, Ann, was found to have multiple sclerosis in 1999.
“We have our struggles like everyone else,” he said. “We’ve been through some tough family things.”
The brothers are four years older now – all are married and have children – and Romney urged them to focus on their own lives rather than campaign for him. “So we kind of took his advice and decided that we’d go against it,” Matt said.
Though only Tagg was there when Romney declared his candidacy last June in Stratham, N.H., by the time their father had eked out an eight-vote victory last Tuesday night in Iowa, four of the Republican candidate’s five sons stood onstage behind him, a striking image of a beaming nuclear family that was picked up by websites and newspapers across the country.
Of course, the ability to show off good genes is not limited to the Romney family. One more difference from the 2008 campaign is that the Romney brothers now have a rival of sorts: the Huntsman girls and their playful, flirty Twitter feed, which has been prominent enough to spark profiles in The New York Times, The New Yorker and GQ.
Jon M. Huntsman Jr.’s three oldest daughters (Liddy, Mary Anne and Abby) have used their Twitter account, which is glamorous and lighthearted, as a launching pad for viral videos and even to try to bait Romney’s sons into some mischievous banter. (They abstained).
When he was considering a second presidential run, the analytical and data-driven Romney polled his sons for their input. They all saw the downsides – the way it would thrust them and their families into the spotlight, the limited time they’d have with their father – but they rallied around him once the decision was made.
Which is not to say that it has all been smooth sailing. Stumping for his father in New Hampshire, Matt repeated a joke about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate and promptly had to post an apology via Twitter. “Definitely in the back of my mind I thought, ‘I don’t want to own that joke,”’ Matt said.
They see their role as supporting their father, whether that means offering encouragement backstage during debates or sharing personal anecdotes about him to counter the imagine that Romney is stiff and wooden.
“Everyone in the country gives him advice,” Matt said of his father. “We’d like to give him advice, too, but we just have to bite our tongue.” Instead, Matt added, he and his brothers’ “most important role is showing him funny YouTube videos before debates.” (Romney is partial to clips of the comedian Chris Farley, as well as an ‘80s video-dating montage.)
According to the brothers, who each tried to offer their own, more humble and self-deprecating moniker, Tagg is the “smart one,” Matt is the “cool one,” Josh is the “dreamy one” and Craig is the “funny one.”
“I don’t know how I got the funny one,” Craig said.
“No, you’re a funny little guy,” Josh said with a nod, prompting Eric Fehrnstrom, an adviser to Mitt Romney who was monitoring the interview from the wings, to crack up.
(Ben Romney, 33, was the absent son, at least for this trip. A medical resident in radiology, Ben is also the most un-Romney Romney. He’s the only brother with blond hair and is described as quiet and focused.)
Though the brothers frequently profess reluctance to speak with the news media, their stance feels somewhat feigned. “I don’t know how I ended up in a news conference here,” Josh said as seven reporters surrounded him last week after a rally for his father in Des Moines. He then spent the next 10 minutes parrying questions, his hands clasped behind his back.
When an Italian television reporter asked if he could explain “who your father is and why he should be president,” Josh politely asked, “In English or Italian,” before mentioning Romney’s private-sector experience and how that makes him best equipped to turn around the economy.
They have developed a set of habits and rituals to tolerate life on the campaign trail. The ultra-fit brothers work out together, sometimes swimming in the hotel pool. On primary nights or after debates, they often split chocolate shakes with their parents as they await the returns.
The gold standard, Tagg said, is “a chocolate malted shake from Dairy Queen.” (When Tagg – a Mormon who, like his parents and brothers, does not drink alcohol – was asked on the afternoon of the Iowa caucuses about the family’s Election Day traditions, he joked, “We’re going to all go get totally wasted,” before adding, “Uh, I probably shouldn’t have said that.”)
Pranks are another favorite of Romney’s sons. Traveling through Iowa on the campaign bus, Josh recently tried to duct tape Tagg inside the bathroom. “I was onto him quickly,” said Tagg, who managed to elbow his way out before the door was sealed.
“Everyone is afraid to fall asleep on the bus right now, because everyone knows Josh has smelling salts, just waiting for someone to doze off,” Craig said.
The brothers reject the notion that they’re attractive, but evidence suggests otherwise. After a gaggle of girls who had called him a “superstar” walked away from Josh, he grinned. “If only I were 17, this would be great,” he said.
Though the sons say that they’re only focused on helping their father win the presidency, politics may be their future. In 2008, Josh considered a congressional run in his home state, Utah, and Romney introduced him at his campaign headquarters in December by saying, “He really should be the politician in the family, not me.”
Friends and aides, as well as Romney himself, say that Tagg, who now manages a hedge fund, also has the interest and the talent for public office.
When asked, Tagg and Josh played down their political prospects – sounding an awful lot like true politicians.
By Ashley Parker