01/22/2012 03:59 EST | Updated 03/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Romney's struggles to connect to primary voters, average Americans plague him

CHARLESTON, S.C. - By most accounts, Mitt Romney is said to be exactly how his wife of 42 years has long described him — an adoring and attentive husband and a loving father and grandfather to his brood of sons and grand-kids.

And yet he was trounced on Saturday night in a family-values state by a man renowned for cheating on two wives. He's now married to a third, who was once his extra-marital mistress of several years.

Not only that, but Newt Gingrich is bitterly disliked and distrusted by many of his former congressional colleagues and was once fined $300,000 for ethics violations when he was speaker of the House of Representatives.

But Gingrich, 68, achieved what Romney could not in South Carolina — he connected with the Republican party's conservative base, stirring their patriotic passions with a pair of fiery debate performances last week.

Romney? The 64-year-old multi-millionaire left them cold with his stumbles and stammers when faced with questions about when he's going to release his tax returns.

Congressman James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, said Romney simply failed miserably to forge any ties with the state's voters, who prefer their politicians with some fire in their bellies.

"Romney seemed not to be able to connect with his base; he really separated himself from the voters," Clyburn said Sunday on CNN. "It was very clear to me that he was cutting himself off ... He was not doing well with identifying with ordinary voters. He doesn't seem to be able to do that."

A Gingrich booster from North Carolina agreed.

"I just don't feel any kinship with him; I can't relate to him," Nancy Gallaghan, a 59-year-old insurance agent who travelled south to work on the Gingrich campaign, said Sunday on her way back home to Greensboro.

"Newt might have a past, but it's all out there now, so there won't be any surprises. But Romney seems to be hiding something; I don't trust him."

On "Fox News Sunday" on Sunday morning, Romney waved a white flag on the tax return issue, saying his campaign would release his 2010 documents on Tuesday as he acknowledged the issue has inflicted some damage.

"We just made a mistake in holding off as long as we did," he said. "It was just a distraction."

But that doesn't solve what some say is still is biggest problem as he heads to Florida, the site of the next state primary on Jan. 31 — his inability to connect to average Americans.

"He just seems to have no real idea about how people actually live because he came from such a wealthy background," said Randall Wing, 56, a one-time military man and retired government contractor from Wisconsin who now drives a taxi in Charleston.

"When he said during that one debate: 'I'll bet you $10,000' — he honestly didn't seem to understand how much money that is to most people. And I can't see how he changes moving forward. He is who he is; how does he change who he is?"

Romney's lack of a personal touch has long been a concern not just to primary voters but to the Republican party establishment. It partly explains why there have been a series of unlikely candidates rise in the polls to challenge his status as front-runner, and why the party's elite had hoped for a white knight like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to enter the race.

Indeed, Romney's substantial wealth — along with campaign trail verbal missteps like "corporations are people" and "I like being able to fire people" — have made Americans uneasy about him. With his humiliating loss in South Carolina, there's little doubt that unease will plague him in Florida, too, even though he remains well atop the polls there.

It's a curious conundrum for a man clearly adored and admired by those closest to him.

"Mitt is awesome," one of his daughter-in-laws, Mary Romney, wrote in a recent post on her blog after Romney handily won the primary in the more moderate state of New Hampshire.

"I've probably heard him speak a dozen times or more just in the past few days, and I continue to be amazed at his brilliance and his passion for the country."

The 30-year-old Mary Romney is married to Romney's youngest son, Craig. She rarely mentions her famous father-in-law on her blog except to make the odd mention of what a sweet grandfather "Papa" is; instead, it's devoted mostly to her young boys, cooking and home decor.

But every now and again, photos show up of a beaming Romney doing the dishes at big family gatherings, listening intently as his grandchildren put on Christmas plays or simply cuddling them on his lap with his wife, Ann, nestled next to him.

There's no evidence on the blog of any ostentatious wealth — the Mormon family's various stomping grounds are tasteful, not ornate. Instead, the Romneys seem a close, loving family who do their own dishes, cook their own meals, raise their own children and live their lives like many Americans do.

How does Romney project that warm, average American side of his life to the party's suspicious primary voters?

It's a challenge for his campaign.

Christie, now one of his attack dogs, said Sunday that Romney is simply a "reserved" man uncomfortable with publicly wearing his heart on his sleeve.

"I believe Mitt Romney will meet that challenge and connect," he said on NBC's "Meet The Press."

Christie also provided a glimpse of the Romney campaign's new strategy heading into Florida. The usually mild-mannered candidate is going to start hitting Gingrich hard on matters of character, where he has a distinct advantage over his rival.

Gingrich is an "embarrassment to the party," Christie said on "Meet The Press."

"Newt Gingrich has embarrassed the party over time. Whether he'll do it again in the future, I don't know, but Gov. Romney never has," he said.

Romney fired a similar warning shot on Fox.

"Character is a big part of leadership, as is vision, sobriety, steadiness," Romney said. "These are attributes which I think people want to see in their candidate."