Take that, Mr. Hope and Change.
In a made-for-TV national introduction, Willard Mitt Romney accepted the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday night with a workmanlike attempt to soften his image, deliver a positive vision for the nation, and fuel doubts about President Obama.
He did well. Not super, but well. The most compelling moment of the night may have come before he took the stage and before the network broadcast, when a touching biography film showed him to be something other than a rich, aloof, corporate raider. His strongest moments on stage played out on his most familiar and fertile ground: chiding Obama.
“I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed,” Romney told cheering, chanting GOP delegates. “But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn’t something we have to accept.”
(FULL TEXT: Romney's Acceptance Speech)
Romney chose a stiletto over a sledgehammer to criticize Obama. Romney’s pollsters warned him in advance that overt attacks might backfire with swing voters who like Obama personally but who disapprove of his handling of the economy.
So with calculated condescension, the former Massachusetts governor recast the classic election-year question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Said Romney: “How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America? Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. Hope and Change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama?”
“You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president,” Romney said, “when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”
Before the convention, Republican strategists urged Romney’s team to take advantage of the prime-time address to offer Americans a positive, confident path to the future -- what President George H.W. Bush called the “vision thing.”
On this count, Romney fell short, perhaps by design. More pragmatic than poetic, Romney boiled his vision down to a single word: jobs. “Lots of jobs.”
“I am running for president to help create a better future,” Romney said. “A future where everyone who wants a job can find one. Where no senior fears for the security of their retirement. An America where every parent knows that their child will get an education that leads them to a good job and a bright horizon.”
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After electing a man of huge promise and ambition, voters might welcome a candidate with curbed enthusiasm. That seems to be Romney’s calculation, anyway. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family,” Romney said, drawing perhaps the loudest cheers of the night.
Romney came to Tampa tied with Obama in national polls and narrowly trailing in the handful of states that truly matter. Polls suggest that voters believe Romney would handle the economy and budget deficit better than the incumbent, a good sign for him given how important those issues are to voters. But Obama leads Romney on a raft of character issues, including likability, honesty, and “cares about the needs of people like me.”
Part of the problem is voters know relatively little about Romney. And some of what they know about him complicates his task: Romney has a history of flip-flopping on issues, he’s extraordinarily wealthy, and he can be tone-deaf about what moves voters. He just doesn’t seem comfortable in his skin.
Acknowledging to voters that “you need to know more about me and about where I will lead our country,” Romney essentially introduced himself by talking about his upbringing (his father, George, was a Michigan governor who ran for president in the 1960s), his Mormon faith (“It was a joy to help others”), his wife (“Ann would have succeeded at anything she wanted to do”), and his career as a venture capitalist.
On the biography presentation, Romney scored a solid C. He told a touching story about his father buying a single rose for his mother every day of their long marriage. That is how his mother discovered that his father had died -- the rose was not on the table. It could have been an emotional high point, but Romney rushed to the next passage in his speech -- the next well-practiced life’s story -- and the moment was lost.
Before the networks began their broadcasting hour, a stream of surrogates took the stage to vouch for Romney’s character. Some testimonials were powerful. Others a bit strained: “Authentic,” hardly an attribute one would naturally assign to Romney’s public life, scrolled across the teleprompter a time or two.
A touching film about his personal life, including a 43-year marriage, a successful career, and loving parents, aired just before networks began televising the convention. Home videos, hushed voices, and heartfelt love stories; it was a mistake not to air them in prime time.
Instead of the biographical video, viewers saw actor Clint Eastwood open the night’s closing act by poking fun at Obama in a mock interview (oddly, the president was represented by an empty seat on stage). “Now it may be time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem,” Eastwood said.
It was a questionable way to begin the only hour of prime-time coverage, yielding precious time to growling slapstick and self-referential asides (“OK, you want to make my day?”).
In such a tight race, Romney needs to squeeze full advantage from every moment. He did well Thursday night, but not as well as he could have – should have.
(FULL COVERAGE: The Republican National Convention)