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To bond with voters, Romney eats from sea to shining sea

Call them food photo ops.

There's Mitt Romney eating pork on a stick at the Iowa State Fair. Then he's flipping pancakes in New Hampshire and hauling takeout from a barbecue joint in South Carolina. He tosses bags of chips to journalists on his campaign plane in Jacksonville, and on another day samples roast pork sliced from a whole hog at a stop in Hialeah.

And there is ice cream, lots of ice cream.

All of these moments are photographed and become part of the story of presidential candidates, even though what appears to be casual drop-bys are often highly engineered by campaign committees and the Secret Service. Still, the diner/food festival/state fair campaign stop has become as much a part of the political process as kissing babies. We like our food, and we like our candidates to eat homemade pies and pulled pork, too. The food venue is a place where candidates can connect with a cross-section of people.

"There's food everywhere, and he loves food," says Garrett Jackson, Romney's 25-year-old personal aide who has been traveling with him for more than two years. Jackson is on the phone Sunday from New Hampshire on the eve of a town hall meeting with Romney and Paul Ryan, his running mate. "This guy loves to eat, but he's also disciplined so he's not going to pig out."

We're not sure how visible Romney will be next week before his Aug. 30 acceptance speech as the Republican candidate for president at the national convention in Tampa, but perhaps we'll see photos of him chowing down on an Ybor City Cuban or sampling smoked mullet from Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish before that. Jackson says Romney's favorite dinner is meatloaf and mashed potatoes, so we'd recommend the decadent macaroni-and-cheese-stuffed version at Datz on S MacDill Avenue.

Given his druthers, Jackson says, Romney will eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, preferably Honey Nut Chex, Honey Nut Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs — "all the kids' cereals." His bedtime snack? A bowl of cereal.

"He likes grits, too, which I always thought was kind of funny," says Jackson, his soft Mississippi accent indicating he knows a thing or two about the South's favorite bowl of carbs. "Anytime we are in a place that has grits, he has a bowl in his hand. He likes them cheesy, but he also likes them plain with butter."

Romney has a strong preference for peanut butter, and we've seen photos of him making his own PB & honey sandwiches aboard the campaign bus. Part of Jackson's job is to make sure the bus is stocked with the candidate's favorite snacks, and they include extra-chunky peanut butter, all-natural honey and white bread, plus peanut M&Ms and peanut-butter pretzels.

"He makes sure to eat fruits and vegetables, too," Jackson says. He also tries to work out a few days a week at hotel gyms, favoring the stationary bike and elliptical trainers.

Romney isn't a fan of the "fancy, sit-down, multiple-course dinner," which is probably a good thing for a candidate on the road. The schedule often includes pancakes here, fried chicken there and then a big slice of pie in the afternoon. He'll try anything, Jackson says.

"I am very jealous of his metabolism."

The food campaign stop seems fairly innocuous, but it's not without the possibility of controversy. Romney held an event earlier this month at a Miami restaurant owned by a convicted cocaine trafficker. The campaign was mum on the revelation, but El Palacio de los Jugos owner Reinaldo Bermudez, who served three years in federal prison after pleading guilty, told the Associated Press, "Thankfully, we all have the opportunity in this country to re-enter society when we've done something wrong."

We haven't seen photos of Romney tossing back a few cool ones. His Mormon faith discourages alcohol consumption, and many members of the church avoid caffeine, too, though Romney is a fan of Coke Zero and chocolate milk. President Obama has gotten photo coverage on his drink of choice — beer. At least one temper flared at the Iowa State Fair last week when a beer tent operator complained that the shut-down of his facility for a few hours during Obama's visit cost him $25,000, according to the Associated Press.

And while Romney passes out chips to journalists, Obama has been known to share bottles of White House Honey Beer, brewed by White House chefs and including honey from first lady Michelle Obama's garden beehive. Reuters reports that the Obamas are footing the bill for the White House microbrew.

In general, though, complaints from business owners about candidate visits are infrequent despite the rigors that come with campaign whistle stops.

Bill Sullivan, owner of Tom's Ice Cream Bowl in Zanesville, Ohio, says Romney's visit to his shop last week was preceded by visits from campaign workers and scrutiny from the Secret Service. The morning of the stop, bomb-sniffing dogs nosed around the ice cream parlor and the phone was tapped, he says.

"In fact, it might be still tapped," he says by phone the day after the visit. The campaign handpicked the people in the shop but Sullivan, who has owned Tom's for 28 years and managed it seven years before that, was allowed to invite some relatives, who underwent security checks.

"One thing that surprised me was how relaxed he was," Sullivan says about the candidate, who was at the shop for more than an hour. About 2,000 people were on the street outside, which was closed to traffic. "He was cracking jokes and greeting everyone."

Sullivan suggested that Romney sample a flavor he calls White House, vanilla ice cream laced with maraschino cherries. (The cherries, he says, are drained well so as not to turn the ice cream pink.) He ate an entire bowl, Sullivan says, then wanted to try the chocolate peanut butter cup.

"He took that with him on the bus."

The Tom's Ice Cream Bowl stop was typical of a planned event, but there are times when the candidate gets spontaneous and there is no Secret Service reconnaissance to go with the handshakes and ice cream cones.

"Sometimes we are just driving down the street and he sees an ice cream place, a Dairy Queen, or a McDonald's and he says, 'Let's stop and get something.' So we turn the bus around," Jackson says.

Romney loves ice cream, and if there's peanut butter on the side and a photographer nearby to capture the moment, so much the better.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

To bond with voters, Romney eats from sea to shining sea 08/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 1:18am]
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