America, there is somebody you need to get to know—and soon. Please say hi to Willard Mitt Romney.
On the night he claimed the Republican presidential nomination, his wife, Ann Romney, and keynote speaker Chris Christie sought to introduce the former Massachusetts governor to the nation while infusing his mushy public image with character traits heretofore lacking from his brand: authenticity, warmth, and conviction.
Like any introduction, this one lacked context: We got the proverbial handshake and hello, but we didn’t hear about life beforehand. In Romney’s case, that meant his flip-flops, his outsized wealth, his corporate conquests, and a platform of conservative policies that still lacks detail—all of that was inconvenient backstory.
Fortunately for the nominee, polls show that nearly a third of the electorate don’t know Romney well or have an opinion of him—remarkable for a man who is running for the White House for a second time and who has spent nearly a year campaigning.
This unfamiliarity meant that the evening, and the convention, presented a real, meaningful opportunity to shape public perception. And Ann Romney and Christie attempted to take full advantage of it.
Mrs. Romney opened the prime-time hour with a personal tribute to her husband of 43 years and the father of their five sons. “A storybook marriage? No, not at all,” she said. “What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage.”
Christie, the pugnacious and polarizing New Jersey governor, sought with one keynote speech to wash away Romney’s reputation for pandering. “We have a man who will tell us the truth and will lead us with conviction,” he said to a chorus of cheers from the overflow convention crowd.
After months of pounding by President Obama and his allies—an assault that defined Romney as a tax-avoiding, job-exporting, middle-class-loathing fat cat—the newly-minted GOP nominee finally fought back with a counter narrative.
Christie led the way—with a bulldozer. The governor is blunt, brash, and self-consciously authentic, the antithesis to what turns off today’s voters: flip-flopping politicians who speak in poll-tested platitudes. Yes, he’s the anti-Romney.
Romney is square-jawed and handsome; Christie is not (just ask him). Romney measures his words; Christie heaves his. Romney equivocates; Christie eats “hard choices” for lunch. If Mitt Romney is vanilla, Chris Christie is three hefty scoops of Rocky Road topped with whipped cream, Red Bull, and gravel.
“Tonight,” he told delegates, “we choose respect over love.” Christie said that Romney would not be like the many politicians who would rather be popular than right, who tear people down rather than fix problems, who care more about winning reelection than getting something done.
“Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths,” Christie said not once but three times.
Keynote speeches are often a launching pad for future runs, and Christie sounded more like the nominee than the keynote. He bragged about cutting taxes, battling unions, and encouraging shared sacrifice.
And he said that New Jersey voters “rewarded politicians who led instead of politicians who pandered.” There was that word again.
In a blatant appeal to female voters, Ann Romney deflected almost all the attention to her husband while portraying him as a funny (“He still makes me laugh”); loyal (“We were determined not to let anything stand in the way of our life together”); and proudly successful man (she expressed surprise that his “history of success is being attacked”).
Mrs. Romney drew huge applause when she explained why people had heard so little about his community service. “He sees it as a privilege,” she said, “not as a talking point.”
“This man will not fail. This man will not let us down,” she said in a powerful conclusion to an address that lasted nearly 30 minutes. At another point, Mrs. Romney strained to cast their marriage as less than privileged, recalling the early days in a basement apartment eating pasta and tuna-fish.
Nonetheless, the Romneys struck a handsome pose when the nominee joined his wife on stage to the Temptations’ “My Girl.”
Romney relies more than most presidential aspirants on surrogates for help. Unlike most politicians, he is a private man who doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. Nor is he very good at weaving his life-story narrative into a brand that connects him to voters. He is not from a “place called Hope,” much less the haloed evangelist for hope and change.
There is another reason Romney is mostly a one-dimensional figure: Unlike Obama, he is not the product of a movement; there is no cult of personality surrounding Romney like there was for Ronald Reagan in 1980. He is a technocrat and a plodder who paid his dues, running and losing in 2008 to be first in line for the GOP establishment’s nod four years later.
A new CBS News/New York Times poll shows that 32 percent of voters don’t know Romney or don’t have an opinion about him.
That is a problem for Romney, because voters like to feel acquainted with their candidates. It helps to be liked, too. Obama’s high personal approval rating has kept him highly competitive despite a wretched economy and voters’ concerns about his handling of it.
Until now, Romney has mistakenly—almost arrogantly—ignored the problems caused by his aloofness. “I am who I am,” he said three times in an interview with Politico. He used the same line on Sunday with Fox News. Desperate is the candidate who equates himself with Popeye the spinach-chugging sailor man.
“It’s nice to be loved,” Romney told Parade magazine recently, “but it’s better to be respected.” Christie picked up on that theme almost word for word, suggesting that viewers didn’t need to adore Romney to vote for him.
Still, Romney’s problem is easier to fix than Obama’s: A majority of voters disapprove of how the president is handling the economy, their single most important issue. Incompetence is a hard knock to shake.
Romney’s next act is Thursday night, when he accepts the GOP nomination in a nationally televised address. Like any introduction, Tuesday was a night for sturdy handshakes and smiles, the shallow embrace of somebody new and unknown and not yet worthy of your trust.
Ladies and gentlemen, his wife and political ally said on Tuesday night, this is Mitt.
This article appears in the August 29, 2012 edition of NJ Convention Daily.