Three days can’t repair an image, nearly six years in formation, that’s made Mitt Romney the least popular presidential nominee in modern political history. But as a quick makeover, the Republican National Convention was a good start.
The truncated Tampa program gave the party faithful reasons to be excited, not ambivalent, about the new GOP standard-bearer who once served as a moderate governor from a blue state. Undecided voters who heard emotional testimonials from Ann Romney and church members whom Romney helped might finally warm up to a candidate who can seem aloof. Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan made a spirited effort to turn a squishy flip-flopper into a risk-taking problem solver.
Most important, Mitt Romney delivered a speech as sturdy and square as his jaw line. It contained more platitudes than policy details, but the solid effort punctuated the message that Obama had let down the country and he was ready to take charge. By first appearing on the floor instead of the stage, taking a few moments to shake hands and hug supporters, Romney presented himself as a man of the people.
The convention wasn’t without faults: Marquee speeches -- including Clint Eastwood’s odd, ad-libbed cameo -- fell flat and the Romney-Ryan ticket faces mounting skepticism about the accuracy of its attacks. The convention could fail to lift Romney higher than a few points in the polls -- and that bounce could be wiped out by President Obama’s own balloon-festooned infomercial next week in Charlotte.
But a week ago, Romney was contemplating the possibility that a hurricane would cancel the entire event. Instead, he can march into the home stretch of the general election knowing he didn’t waste his best, uninterrupted chance to convince voters they should make him the country’s next president.
Romney desperately needed a chance to tell his story on his own terms. Obama and his allies have spent months and millions demonizing him as a greedy corporate raider and, worse, an uncaring human being. Their assault, which even many Republicans now concede was at least somewhat successful, reduced to rubble the once-bedrock belief on Team Romney that they had only to exploit a weak economy -- not offer up a likable alternative -- to oust Obama.
So in stepped Mitt’s wife of 42 years, who vouched for Romney's good heart and head as only a wife could. She detailed their teenaged romance but didn't sugarcoat their "real marriage,'' as she put it, talking openly about the chaos of a five-boy household and her battles with breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. These kinds of details, campaign strategists say, can help voters feel that Romney understands their everyday lives.
“The more they like Mitt Romney the person, it’s Obama attacking a friend instead of someone we don’t know," said Republican strategist John Brabender, who advised Romney's onetime rival, Rick Santorum.
Polls will show whether the convention impressed the country. But in the convention hall, signs of success came through during interviews with delegates. Pennsylvania delegate Pattie Booker said she felt "way more comfortable with Romney," especially after hearing from his personable wife. Steve Malay of North Carolina felt his Medicare benefits would be safe after he saw Ryan hug his mother on stage.
Virginia delegate Shirley Forbes was excited to see so many rising female stars and wants to start a “Moms for Mitt’’ chapter back home. “I’ve been getting text messages all week from my friends and we are ready to hit the streets,” said Forbes, a 59-year-old business consultant who watched Romney’s speech from the front row of the hall in Tampa. “I believe we now have the momentum to take this home in November.”
The three-day program also helped Romney by lacking any major embarrassments. The speakers and delegates generally avoided slinging personal or over-the-top invective at Obama, the red meat common at conservative gatherings that would alienate many moderates watching at home. Instead, Republicans presented a relentless but more or less controversy-free case that Obama is incapable of grappling with a sputtering economy and ballooning deficits.
“I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed,” said Romney, who took pains to keep his attack on Obama rooted in substance. “But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn't something we have to accept. Now is the moment when we can do something. With your help we will do something.”
To be sure, the convention hit some false notes: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s keynote speech was panned as self-indulgent, and its placement dampened the afterglow from Ann Romney’s warm speech. Ryan undermined his credibility when he blamed Obama for a plant that closed on George W. Bush’s watch and for walking away from the Bowles-Simpson debt commission report while failing to mention his own vote against it. And can even the most ardent Republican believe that Romney will create 12 million jobs in five simple steps?
Right at the top of the last hour of the convention broadcast, when the largest audience was expected, Eastwood gave a rambling, peculiar speech in which he pretended to have a conversation with an empty chair. The chair was apparently supposed to represent Obama. The campaign would have been better served by moving an appealing video about Romney’s life into that hour, the only one covered by network television.
The party did successfully showcase an impressive lineup of women and minorities at a time when Romney is trailing Obama with those voting blocs. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez gave rousing speeches, and the campaign started making good on its promise to ramp up its Spanish-language advertising this week, spending nearly $600,000.
But the damage was already done. The Republican platform, written a week earlier, took a hard tack against immigration reform, reflecting Romney’s tough stance on an issue Latino voters care deeply about. Speeches won’t attract them, said Terry Nelson, the political director of Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. “We have some policy issues that are causing us problems.”
Whether Romney receives a post-convention bump remains unclear. That hasn’t been the case in recent conventions, and he has the additional problem of having had to compete with a hurricane for attention. Even a minor bounce could lift Romney into the lead in key swing states and perhaps national polls -- but that could be wiped out if Obama experiences a similar bounce after Charlotte.
Nelson offered another standard for how to judge the success of the Republican convention: “Two weeks from now, are we talking about the things that Mitt Romney wants to talk about or are we talking about the things Obama wants to talk about?"