President Obama's campaign has spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars defining Mitt Romney as the hopelessly rich, out-of-touch corporate raider intent on making his buddies rich and sending your job overseas. On Thursday night, Romney gets his chance to address an audience of tens of millions of American voters, and Republican strategists insist he must use the opportunity to fill in the gaps.
Romney's campaign has spent more than $75 million on television advertising too, almost all of it on negative spots criticizing the president. The upshot has been that few Americans have positive views of the Republican presidential nominee.
In a Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll released on Wednesday, just 28 percent of respondents offered a positive response when asked to describe Romney in a single word. More than four in 10 used a negative term -- "liar," "arrogant," "crook," and "out of touch" among the most common -- and 30 percent used a neutral term.
In an election that is rapidly becoming a choice between two rival visions rather than a referendum on Obama's record, party strategists think Romney needs to change that equation. Romney's prime-time speech, they said, should offer both an introduction of the former Massachusetts governor as a person, and an overview of his plans as president. In short, he has to answer the "who" and the "why."
"Our research shows that swing voters are very receptive to positive information about Romney. But he needs to tell the personal Romney story even more than present the Romney plan," said Steve Law, president of American Crossroads. "If he does that, Romney can wipe off a lot of the mud that's been thrown at him and connect with voters."
Terry Nelson of FP1 Strategies, who was political director for George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, said the problem is that Romney lacks a clear picture.
“They have not gotten to the point where they have said to the American people what Mitt Romney’s vision is for the future of the country," Nelson told a National Journal/The Atlantic/CBS News event at the Republican National Convention on Thursday. "Most people know what he is against and what he will undo, but they don’t yet know what he is going to do and how he is going to do it."
The convention in Tampa has been less about defining Romney and his plans as it has been about contrasting with Obama. The exceptions have sought to lay a foundation of the who and why on which the nominee can build in his speech on Thursday night. Ann Romney sought to humanize her husband; the vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, began to lay out the choice that voters face.Now Romney has to flesh that out, Republican strategists said.
Romney "needs to show passion, not anger or arrogance, but the passion to fix our nation," said David Carney, the New Hampshire Republican operative who led Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign. "He needs to project empathy for the plight of millions of Americans looking for someone who understands their problems. This is hard; it's not pandering or mouthing lines of sympathy. One does not to have experienced having your home going up in flames to show empathy for your neighbors who've lost their home in a house fire."
John Brabender of Brabender Cox, a former senior adviser for Rick Santorum, said Romney can’t just talk about himself.
“The biography point needs to be something that illustrates a bigger point,” Brabender said at the NJ event. “He has to rally people, to say, ‘You know that this guy is going to take us some place as a country, this guy is going to impact me personally' … If this simply becomes an hour-long biography where he simply defends himself on Bain Capital and everything else, that’s not the way to go.”
Tactically, Romney won't be able to afford long stories. Most voters who need to see the speech -- undecided voters in critical battleground states -- probably won't watch it live. More likely they will hear it in sound bites later. In that sense, the speech is the ultimate photo-op.
Undecided voters "tell us they want to know more about Romney on a personal level, but they also want to hear details and specifics on how he's going to make things better for them in terms of the economy, education and health care," said Alex Bratty, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies. "The convention is Romney's opportunity to present himself, his family, and his plan."