What Are We to Make of Romney's Flashes of Irritation?

What Are We to Make of Romney's Flashes of Irritation?

By Scott Conroy - March 17, 2012

For Al Gore, it was the audible sighing in his first debate against George W. Bush in 2000 that struck many viewers as off-putting.

Eight years later, the occasional finger-wagging, red-faced deportment of former President Bill Clinton did his wife no favors during her White House run.

In the current Republican race, Newt Gingrich has shown -- to his advantage -- a palpable irritation with both the media (his longstanding target) and anyone who suggests that his foundering campaign is doomed to fail.

Exasperation is a trait that all but the very happiest warriors on the presidential campaign battlefield have slipped into from time to time.

For the candidates, the days are long, the food is unhealthy, and the reporters’ questions are constant and often combative.

That seekers of the nation’s highest office -- who are often well into their seventh or even eighth decades of life -- are able to tolerate these conditions without snapping constantly at everyone in sight is a marvel in its own right.

But public temperament always seems to be a key character issue in presidential races.

Mitt Romney, who celebrated his 65th birthday earlier this week, by and large typifies an almost preternaturally cheerful breed of candidate, someone who seems to relish even the most banal moments of the campaign trail grind.

But this usually sunny disposition also may be what makes Romney’s occasional flashes of unadulterated irritation all the more striking.

According to the national front-runner himself, his sons refer to these loose-tempered moments as “Mitt-frontations.” How they go down in private is known only to his immediate family and closest friends, but anyone who has paid attention to his two presidential campaigns recognizes the characteristics of a public Mitt-frontation.

A strong debater by just about any pundit’s measure, Romney can sometimes slip into a smartest-student-in-the-class smirk when he must listen to points his opponents make that he’s deemed weak or unworthy of serious discussion.

Romney has typically demonstrated his most acute level of annoyance when he has been cut off on a debate stage before his allotted time has expired.

“You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking,” he said to Rick Perry during the same October debate in which he became irked to the point of placing a hand on the Texas governor’s shoulder. “And I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you’ve got to let both people speak; so first, let me speak.”

The most infamous surfacing of Romney’s argumentative side occurred during his first presidential run on an icy day in Columbia, S.C., when he engaged in an unusually contentious back-and-forth exchange with an Associated Press reporter.

Though Romney typically comes across to journalists as approachable, other spats with members of the Fourth Estate have been triggered by their line of questioning.

The most recent example occurred on Wednesday, when Romney was asked by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly about his comments that have inadvertently drawn attention to his wealth and heightened perceptions that he’s disconnected from less fortunate Americans.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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