The Gettysburg Address streamed across the arena’s teleprompter as Republican convention organizers tried out the microphones, lifted balloons to the rafters, and primped the stage for the presidential nominee’s acceptance speech.
Now exhale: This was only a test. No one expects Mitt Romney to give one of the greatest speeches of all time when he accepts his party’s nomination in Tampa on Thursday. He doesn’t have to. He’s battling a sitting president presiding over the worst preelection economy in decades.
But this week’s convention presents a once-in-an-election opportunity for the campaign to remedy one of Romney’s biggest shortcomings: Voters don’t like him as much as they do President Obama. A bit of a misfit on the campaign trail, cast as a villain in Democratic attack ads, Romney needs the convention to bring him down to earth. The three-day event will showcase sides of Romney that have only been glimpsed over the last few months: the family man, man of faith, leader in times of crisis, crackerjack businessman.
Voters don’t have to love him, Romney advisers say, but they will respect him. (The irony that it could take a tightly scripted, made-for-television event to make Romney seem more authentic appears to be lost on campaign and party officials.)
“They key question is, ‘Is he a man of character and does he share our values?’ and the convention is going to answer that,” said Romney’s chief pollster, Neil Newhouse. “Voters are going to come away with a good feeling about Governor Romney and a sense of trust.”
Unlike President Clinton, who was comfortable with telling his own heartstring-pulling story of “the man from Hope,” Romney will rely more on family, friends, and Republican compatriots to round out his profile. “It’s more credible coming from other people,” Newhouse said. It’s also out of necessity, since the buttoned-down, well-heeled former corporate executive can be stumbling, even gaffe-prone, when talking about himself.
Voters will hear about the money Romney inherited from his father that he gave to charity; the millions of dollars he donates every year to the Mormon church; the challenges of his wife’s battles with breast cancer and multiple sclerosis; and his success at turning profits and turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics.
In a sign the campaign sees the prime-time speech by his attractive, personable wife as a possible turning point, Ann Romney’s appearance was moved from Monday to Tuesday—even before the tropical storm forced GOP officials to cancel the first day of the convention—because television networks had not planned to broadcast it.
“She’s a very important part of the package that shows his personal side,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who has advised the campaign. “The convention needs to make voters feel more comfortable with him. You’re going to see the personal side and the capable side of Mitt Romney, and see that he is someone people can turn to.”
Helping Romney’s cause will be his affable running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who speaks on Wednesday and whose Midwestern, Catholic roots and middle-class upbringing (he even flipped burgers at McDonald’s) will reflect well on the top of the ticket.
As for Romney himself, he’ll attempt to outline a vision for his presidency rather than simply tear down the incumbent.
“You’re going to hear some of the contrasts with Barack Obama, but I think he mostly paints a picture of what his presidency is going to look like,” Newhouse said. “He’ll talk a lot about his middle-class agenda and how to build a better economy.”
The latest CNN/ORC International poll reinforces what other pollsters have called Romney’s “likability” or “empathy” gap. Obama leads by 13 points when voters are asked “who cares about the needs of people like you” and by 14 points on “is in touch with the problems facing middle class Americans today.”
Romney’s image problems are partly of his own making and partly the fallout from a torrent of attack ads. He’s made a string of awkward references to his wealth on the campaign trail that were blown up by his opponents to suggest he’s out of touch. Even voters who are barely paying attention to the race may have heard about his wife’s two Cadillacs, his friends who own NASCAR teams, and that “he’s not concerned about the very poor.” Making matters much, much worse: a multimillion-dollar media blitz from Obama and his allies that cast Romney as a greedy corporate villain with a shadowy financial profile.
Republican nominee Bob Dole put the question that undecided voters ask themselves this way in 1996: “If something happened along the route and you had to leave your children with Bob Dole or Bill Clinton, I think you’d probably leave your children with Bob Dole.... It all boils down to, ‘Who do you trust?’ ”
That is exactly the question the Romney team hopes the convention will answer. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus described it as a one-two punch. “We’re going to prosecute the president as to what he promised and didn’t deliver. Then we’re going to present the Republican nominee as a representative of the American dream.”
Romney adviser Russ Schriefer said the campaign will still hit all of the themes it planned to even though the convention has been scaled back from four days to three because of the impending storm. Each day’s theme will animate that day of the convention and form an overarching message by the end of the week. Monday’s theme of “We can do better”—a diplomatic way of saying that Obama has failed—will be woven into the three other days: “We built this” Tuesday, “We can change it” Wednesday, and “We believe in America” Thursday.
Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who helped oversee the 2004 convention that nominated John Kerry—also viewed as detached from ordinary people—said that GOP convention organizers have their work cut out for them.
“I think for Romney, the question is not whether he is nice to the people in his family and his company, it’s whether he understands the problems of ordinary people,” Shrum said. “It will be interesting if the campaign goes directly to that problem, if they are able to show him outside his comfort zone.”
Ron Fournier contributed