Every single day Mitt Romney is thrust into a small talk nightmare in which he must chat with strangers and -- more horror -- every time he says something stupid it's caught on tape with the guarantee that people all over America will laugh at him. People who work on the Internet and can only be charming over Gchat sympathize with the agony of having to talk to real humans who don't even know what Gchat is. And that is why the bimonthly reports from The New York Times and elsewhere about how awkward Mitt Romney is can feel like social torture porn. It's the stomach-turning spectacle of watching someone get buttonholed by suburbanites like 200 times a day. 

The Times seems to take particular pleasure in Romney's awkwardness, even transcribing his laughter as stiff "ha-ha"s. Wednesday, Ashley Parker and Michael Barbaro chronicled the many ways Romney fails in conversations with voters in Iowa. The story makes it sound like Romney Googled "How to make small talk" and only remembered Tip No. 3 from Redbook, the first result: "Play detective." The magazine advises, "To move from this surface chitchat to a deeper dialogue, listen for any word in the other person's reply that might suggest a conversational direction." But poor Romney isn't at a work party or a friend's house -- he only has names and faces to work with. The result hurts so much to read:

"Daughter?" he asked a woman sitting with a man and two younger girls at the diner in Tilton, N.H., on Friday morning. Her face turned a shade of red. "Wife."

Oh, Mr. Romney said. "It was a compliment, I guess," said the woman, Janelle Batchelder, 31. "At the same time, it was possibly an insult." ...

Sometimes, when a voter brandishes a camera, his greetings become more elaborate: "Hi, there. You know how to make that work? Ha-ha." ...

[I]n Concord, N.H., a woman told him that she favored socialized medicine. "I've got someone for you," Mr. Romney said. "His name is Barack Obama. He agrees with you. Ha-ha."

When a voter asks Romney if there's a place for Ron Paul in his cabinet, Romney laughs and keeps on walking. But what is he supposed to say? "Yes, I would love to have the guy whose newsletters warned of a coming race war overseeing whatever part of the government it is that he doesn't want to abolish"?
 
In September, The Daily Beast's Andrew Romano transcribed Romney's awkward small talk to devastating effect. The worst moment was when a woman wearing a Special Olympics lanyard approached the candidate:

“I have special needs,” she whispered. “Is there anything you can do for us?” ...

As the woman in green awaited Romney’s answer, the candidate scanned the crowd for an aide. “I tell you,” he finally began. "Is there, uh, uh, a need you have right now that you need, uh, help with?" He made a signing motion with his right hand: Do you want me to sign a petition or something? Because I have people for that.

"No," she said. "What I'm asking right now is, if you became president, would you forget people like me?"

Romney started to answer, but stopped, midsentence, to recalculate. "I'm running for people like -- for the people of the nation," he said. "All the people of the nation. Not just a few, but everybody. Including you."

What else was he supposed to say? "I could never forget you, pal"? "You have just inspired me to make a new special needs program, here are all the details"? "Years of deficit spending means we're going to have to cut back on social programs, sorry"? 

Romney's best off-the-cuff moment in weeks was when he didn't pretend to be a regular guy, but let his nerd light shine brightly. When asked about Newt Gingrich's failure to get on the Virginia primary ballot, Romney said, "I think he compared that to, was it to Pearl Harbor? It’s more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory. I mean, you know, you got to get it organized." Win! It's a 60-year-old TV show, but nerds nationwide recognize the classic small talk crutch: the pop culture reference.

Do more of this, Mr. Romney. "Am I upset that Gingrich is polling above me nationally? Well, I'm a lot more upset about Bored to Death getting cancelled. Ha-ha." And references don't have to be current! Try The Neverending Story: "For a while I felt like my campaign was stuck in the Swamps of Sadness but now I feel like I'm riding on top of a flying dog-dragon. Which is the perfect animal. Ha-ha." You can do it, Mitt Romney! Nerds of America are cheering you on.