By Sam Youngman
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Mitt Romney's crowds are larger now.
And with the Iowa caucuses looming on Tuesday, it seems inevitable that the former Massachusetts governor will do well in, if not win, the first contest in the race for the Republican nomination for president.
But even as Romney appears positioned to take control of the Republican race, a question hangs over his campaign: Can he connect with voters on a personal level any better than he did during his losing campaign in 2008 -- or even inspire them?
Nearly three days of traveling with Romney in Iowa revealed a candidate who has improved significantly in face-to-face encounters with voters, but who still has difficulty inspiring them.
Romney's crowds are respectful but not the boisterous groups one might associate with a front-runner.
His stump speeches often are more technocratic than inspirational. He criticizes Democratic President Barack Obama's handling of the economy, and offers disjointed transitions linking comments on patriotic songs, condemnations of the European way of life, and the need to create jobs and strengthen the U.S. military.
The crowd reacts to Romney's blinding smile with their own. There is applause and polite laughter. An occasional head nod can be seen as Romney lays out his plans. For the most part, the crowd is respectful but not overly enthused.
Several of those in the audience at his campaign stops this week said they like him in part because of what he's saying, but also because they think he'll probably win the Republican nomination to face Obama in the November election.
Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, said that although Romney has improved on the stump, "everything seems forced."
"There's almost some sort of force field between you and him, but you can't break through it if you want to," said Robinson, who is not affiliated with any candidate this year. However, "I really will agree that he's better" than in 2008.
"The easiest thing to notice is that I have yet to see Romney wear a suit in the time he's been in Iowa," Robinson said, noting that Romney has replaced his trademark investment banker look with jeans and window-pane checked shirts.
Analysts say that developing a personal connection with voters is often crucial for presidential candidates.
They note that, for all the optimism surrounding Romney's campaign this year, his percentage of support in recent polls here - about 25% -- is roughly what he received four years ago, when he ran second in the Iowa caucuses to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
The analysts cite Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush, two-term presidents during the past two decades, as politicians whose ability to inspire passion among voters helped to carry them to office, and through various crises.
Obama's place in history as the nation's first African-American president can inspire voters, even though the man himself often can seem aloof, analysts say.
Robinson said that although Romney has softened his touch, he is "not even in the same zip code" as Clinton and Bush when it comes to popular appeal.
Not surprisingly, talk of Romney's issues in connecting with voters is a sensitive subject with his campaign aides.
"The idea that Mitt isn't comfortable doing retail (politics) is ridiculous," said David Kochel, Romney's top aide in Iowa. "He might be better in the boardroom than the beer tent, but he knows how to work a room, and it shows."
Top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom adds: "I've observed Mitt Romney in many settings over the years, and people are drawn to him and feel comfortable in his presence.
"They see in him someone who looks and acts like a leader. What people are hungry for these days is a strong leader who can fix the economy."
TRACES OF GORE, KERRY
As Romney last week began his homestretch sprint to Tuesday's caucuses, he made eight campaign stops in three days.
The stops - in which Romney was relaxed and cheery -- showed how far he has come as a candidate, and his ongoing challenges.
During an event in Mason City, Iowa, at the indoor artificial recreation of the 1912 town from the Broadway musical and movie "The Music Man," a boy asked Romney whether running for president is hard.
"If you get the chance to do it, make sure you do it. Win or lose, it's a good thing to do," Romney told the assembled crowd, many of whom seemed perplexed by the response.
At a packed diner in Cedar Falls, some reporters overheard Romney joking with a supporter that the best part of running for president is, "You get to hug all the girls and not get in trouble."
There are traces of former Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry in Romney, who at times displays the apparent aloofness attributed to Gore or the woodenness for which Kerry was known.
And like Gore and Kerry, Romney - the son of George Romney, a former Michigan governor, American Motors CEO and Housing and Urban Development secretary - can seem awkward trying to identify with middle-class voters whose backgrounds are much less privileged than his own.
At a coffee shop rally in Muscatine, Iowa, this week, Romney, a multimillionaire and founder of an investment firm, told the crowd that he had "lived the American dream."
What Romney lacks in his ability to connect with the audience, his top surrogate on the campaign trail has in abundance.
Ann Romney, his wife of 42 years, is a savvy, charming and gifted speaker who talks to the crowd with authority and humor. She introduced her husband at every event this week, riffing on their five sons and 16 grandchildren and talking about what a great and reliable man her husband is.
"I can't wait for him to get the reigns on the government" Ann Romney often says, "and turn America around."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Doina Chiacu)