NEWARK, Ohio - Mitt Romney is still awkward sometimes, a bit robotic and stilted at the lectern. But a turnabout seems to be happening: Voters say they are seeing him through a new prism.
"He's not stiff. He's letting his own human nature through, talking like you and I are talking now, not guarded and watching what he'd say," Marge Sowa, 69, said of the Republican presidential candidate after sizing him up at a pancake breakfast in Brunswick, Ohio, during his tour of potential battleground states. "He showed personality - oh, big time. He was one of the guys."
One of the guys. That's a far cry from how voters described Romney during the tumultuous GOP primary contest. Now that he is their likely nominee, and running an extremely close race against President Barack Obama, Republicans are demonstrating fresh enthusiasm.
Instead of polite clapping, Romney's campaign stump riffs are cheered with hoots and whistles and chants of "Rom-ney! Rom-ney!" As he builds to the crescendo in his speeches - saying it's time to take the torch and hold it up high so the United States can again become "that shining city on a hill" - his words are drowned out with bursts of applause.
And when he steps off the stage to work the rope line, supporters reach out their hands six or eight deep. They put an arm over his shoulder, hug him or, as Barbara Morris did the other day in Milford, N.H., place their hands over his, look him in the eyes and say, "Bless you, Mitt."
Barack Obama circa 2008 he is most certainly not. But Romney is campaigning with more confidence, in part because of his standing in the polls. While just 58 percent of Republicans viewed him favorably in mid-March, 78 percent had positive opinions in late May, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling.
Romney's advisers argue that the state of the economy alone will decide the November election. But they acknowledge that Americans expect a level of zeal from their presidential candidates. They orchestrated a five-day bus tour for him through six battleground states to show him connecting to voters in a variety of settings.
In a New Hampshire park, he scooped ice cream (mostly vanilla); along a Pennsylvania highway, he stopped by a Wawa convenience store for a meatball hoagie; in Ohio, he flipped pancakes at an apple orchard and then ate a cheeseburger at a diner on Father's Day; and along the Mississippi River in Iowa, he rode on a river boat cruise, and briefly took the steering wheel for a photo op.
Tom Rath, a senior adviser to Romney, said the bus tour is a chance "to get out from behind the podium and talk to people."
"It's, 'Here I am, this is the guy you see on TV, connect with me,' " Rath said. "That's really important. We've got to demonstrate our comfort level in it and our ability to do well in this kind of setting."
Romney is taking steps to energize his crowds. He has dropped lines that reveal hesitation - "If I'm lucky enough to get elected president" - and added a call-and-response. He asks crowds if they think the president gave people a "fair shot" by growing deficit spending, favoring organized labor over businesses and bailing out companies.
"No! No! No!" they respond.
Romney receives his most enthusiastic reactions when he blasts Obama, such as his old standby: "This president is out of ideas, he's out of excuses and we're going to put him out of office."
It may have been a foregone conclusion that Romney eventually would excite his crowds, considering expectations for his stump performances had been so low.
But Romney's supporters may be responding with more passion than before because, after a few weeks in which Obama has been on the defensive, they think Romney might actually replace him in the White House.
"We've been watching him since all the debates and he finally looks like a winner," said Judy Dunlap, 53, who woke up early Saturday to see Romney campaign in Weatherly, Pa.
At the rally in Newark, the candidate paced on stage as he promised he would reverse the nation's long economic decline. "We're going to shock the world with how our economy's coming back," he said. Pointing angrily with his left hand, he said Obama had put the nation on the same path as Europe. Then, raising his right hand toward the sky, he said he would steer the country toward a brighter future. And as if on cue, the crowd cheered and he dropped both arms and simply smiled.
C.G. Jones, 67, a real estate agent, said of Romney, "The media and the administration has unfairly put him in this 'disconnect' ivory tower. I don't think so! He may be a little stiff, but I'd rather have that than our celebrity president. Who does he connect with? I don't think Obama connects with middle America, those of us trying to make things work."
Romney's advisers say that little has changed about the candidate. And they are right. His speeches still are practiced odes to free-market economics. He's still darting between dusty factories and staged rallies, with the same "Born Free" rock anthem and oversize American flags.
Asked to explain the enthusiasm following an evening rally in Cornwall, Pa., Romney's chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, said the end of the primaries brought new "integrity" to the connection between Romney and Republican voters.
"They think there's a very good chance they're seeing the next president," Stevens said. "I think it affects their emotional involvement, their enthusiasm and commitment. In the primary, it was, 'Okay, I like this person,' or, 'Okay, I like that person,' and now these are people committed to Mitt Romney."
When Romney returned to Milford, N.H., on Friday for his first visit to the town since fall, supporter Beverly Geisinger remarked on how much he had evolved as a candidate.
"He's grown - oh, yes, absolutely," said Geisinger, 75. She said that in October, "he tried to be so professional. But he's more confident now. He seems to be more personable and he can relate to people now. He steps down and talks to people. I feel that warmth much more."