KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- Maybe it was something about being back home in Michigan, or the fact that it's nearly the weekend, or just a touch of punchiness after a long day, but Friday night Mitt Romney, yes that Mitt Romney, was just plain funny.
The sometimes-Republican frontrunner, whose reputation for stiffness and an inability to connect with voters on a personal level has long been taken as gospel by campaign-watchers, opened his town hall here tonight as he often does, with an anecdote about his father, a former Michigan governor. But this story was a little different than usual.
"We were in Detroit this morning, at the Detroit Economic Club, then through Mount Clemens, then drove here across the interstate. Drove past Brighton. My parents' grave sites are there," Romney explained. "My dad -- trust my dad. My dad is a very frugal man. He checked all over for where the best deal was on a grave site. And he found a place in Brighton -- because we didn't live in Brighton. It’s like, how did you pick Brighton dad? Well, best price I could find in the whole state. So if you're looking for the best deal on a grave site, check Brighton, they got a good spot you'll be near the former governor and first lady."
A question from a man in the audience about what Romney would do to help the housing industry (grow the economy and get people back to work, the candidate would later explain) was met with another quip about his family: "My grandfather was in housing. That's why my dad grew up poor."
The event Friday night, Romney's third campaign stop of the day after an economic speech at Ford Field and a retail stop at "The Mitt" restaurant in Mount Clemens, wasn't all fun and games. Romney took a tough question about his abortion position, replying that he had once been pro-choice, but changed his views as governor of Massachusetts. He cited former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush as other Republican leaders who had converted to a pro-life view later in their lives.
Standing in front of a giant debt clock, Romney also touted his tax plan as particularly good for small businesses that pay taxes at the individual rates, and promised to cut the deficit by eliminating programs and reforming entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.
"I'm going to get rid of programs. I'm going to eliminate programs, I'm going to cut programs out of the federal government," Romney said.
But once the candidate turned to questions, all bets were off, and Romney had the crowd laughing at several turns.
Even those asking questions got in on the action. A man from Germany asked Romney about the debates. Romney told him that if there were more, perhaps the man should offer to moderate. The man responded that being German, he would make an excellent timekeeper.
Confronted with a question about space exploration and NASA, Romney refused to promise more funding for exploration, saying he preferred to focus on promoting basic science through NASA.
He made light of China's attempt to achieve its own moon landing.
"I know China is headed to the moon," Romney said. "They’re planning on going to the moon, and some people say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get to the moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China.’ It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right? And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?"
Like any good comedian, Romney saved a sure winner for his final joke. Wrapping the event after more than 40 minutes on stage (he said he'd been there an hour), he made mention of an infamous political gaffe by a fellow Massachusetts governor.
"I’m getting the cut off and I won’t make the sign of the cut off because there’s a lot of cameras around here and that’ll be used against me down the road, just like Michael Dukakis’ hat in that tank," Romney said. "There’s some things you just cannot do in politics anymore.”