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Image Expert Shapes Romney (His Hair, Anyway)

Michael Barbaro and Ashley Parker |The New York Times

Voters routinely ask about it on the campaign trail. Pundits chronicle the slightest changes in its presentation. There is a Facebook page to devoted it — not to mention an entire blog. “Has it always been this good?” read a recent online entry.

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The subject of the unusually intense political speculation and debate?

Mitt Romney’s hair.

By far his most distinctive physical feature, Mr. Romney’s head of impeccably coiffed black hair has become something of a cosmetological Rorschach test on the campaign trail, with many seeing in his thick locks everything they love and loathe about the Republican candidate for the White House. (Commanding, reassuring, presidential, crow fans; too stiff, too slick, too perfect, complain critics.)

Mr. Romney’s advisers have been known to fret about the shiny strands, and his rivals have sought to turn them against him. Asked by the late-night-television host Jimmy Fallon on Monday what word she associated with Mr. Romney, a businessman, Olympics executive and governor, Representative Michele Bachmann replied, “Hair.”

Nobody has a more complicated and intimate relationship with Mr. Romney’s hair than the man who has styled it for more than two decades, a barrel-chested, bald Italian immigrant named Leon de Magistris.

For years, Mr. de Magistris said in an interview, he has tried to persuade Mr. Romney, 64, to loosen up his look by tousling his meticulous mane.

“I will tell him to mess it up a little bit,” said Mr. de Magistris, 69. “I said to him, ‘Let it be more natural.’ ”

The suggestion has not gone over well. “He wants a look that is very controlled,” Mr. de Magistris said. “He is a very controlled man. The hair goes with the man.”

Mr. Romney’s is a restrained, classic look: short at the neck, neat on the sides and swept back off the forehead. “It is not something stylish,” Mr. de Magistris noted. “It is clean and conservative.”

The cut is so recognizable that men in this well-heeled suburb of Boston ask for it by name. “The Mitt,” they whisper to Mr. de Magistris from the red vinyl chairs in his upscale salon, Leon & Co., a few blocks from the sprawling home where Mr. Romney raised his family.

Mr. de Magistris, who gave Mr. Romney a $70 trim three weeks ago, agreed to share some of the secrets behind his most famous client’s coiffure in between haircuts the other day.

No, he said, Mr. Romney does not color his hair. Any such artificial enhancement, Mr. de Magistris said, “is not — what do you call it? — in his DNA.”

Despite holding its shape under all but the most extreme conditions, it is gel and mousse-free. “I don’t put any product in there,” he avowed.

And there is this: Sometimes, during long spells on the campaign trail, Mr. Romney trims his own hair, much to the dismay of his stylist. “It doesn’t make me happy,” Mr. de Magistris said, “but what can I do?”

Despite his reservations about Mr. Romney’s ultraconservative look, Mr. de Magistris is extremely protective of the former Massachusetts governor.

A few weeks ago, when he tuned in to watch a Republican presidential debate, he was startled to see that somebody else had cut Mr. Romney’s hair.

“It was just O.K.,” Mr. de Magistris said. “It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.”

He paused. “It was not as nice as it would have been if I’d done it,” he concluded.

Mr. de Magistris began cutting Mr. Romney’s hair at the suggestion of the governor’s wife, Ann, a longtime client. Before that, Mr. de Magistris said, Mrs. Romney had occasionally trimmed her husband’s hair at home, despite the family’s growing wealth from Bain Capital, the private equity business that Mr. Romney founded and ran.

Mr. Romney quickly took to Mr. de Magistris: between snips, the men bonded over their passion for politics and their large broods of sons (Mr. Romney has five; Mr. de Magistris has four).

“We talk about everything but hair,” Mr. de Magistris said.

Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, declined to comment on the candidate’s hairstyle, or to make Mr. Romney available to discuss it. Advisers describe Mr. Romney, whose hectic schedule has landed him in barbershops from Atlanta to New York City (where his cut costs $25), as uninterested in the finer points of his appearance. The same cannot be said of his advisers. In 2007, the last time Mr. Romney ran for president, they drafted a 77-page PowerPoint presentation on his strengths and weaknesses, which later fell into the hands of a reporter.

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His hair was listed as a potential turnoff.

Privately, some Democratic strategists have seized on it as a physical manifestation of what they say is a deeper truth: Mr. Romney, whose fortune is pegged at around $200 million, is not like most Americans. (Democrats know the political power of hair: a $400 wash and trim undercut John Edwards’s populist message in 2007.)

A certain segment of the political world seems riveted by the topic. During a Republican presidential debate in Michigan two weeks ago, blogs and Twitter feeds suddenly lighted up with commentary: a few errant strands of hair had appeared to drape over Mr. Romney’s forehead.

“Switched to CNBC in HD to confirm a 7th Romney hair straying down,” Rick Klein, a political analyst and senior editor at ABC News, posted on Twitter.

Esquire magazine registered its disapproval. “Romney’s hair has officially lost its glory,” tut-tutted one of its bloggers.

Interviews with voters on the campaign trail suggest that, if anything, Mr. Romney’s age-defying hair is an asset, especially with women.

At a recent campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., Caroline Cagan acknowledged a weakness for his lush locks.

“A lot of people would pay a lot of money to have hair like that,” said Ms. Cagan, a local Chamber of Commerce member. “It projects youth. And, honestly, you can’t help but think that people with good hair are in good health.”

Diane Godbout, a retiree who attended the same event, put it in simpler terms: “It’s very presidential.”

Mr. de Magistris, a political independent who plans to vote for Mr. Romney, insists his customer has the best tresses in the Republican field, an advantage for which he proudly takes credit.

“I don’t think he will call me from the White House and say, ‘Come down and cut my hair,’ ” Mr. de Magistris said, with a hint of resignation.

“But if he does call,” he said, “I will come.”