Mitt Romney isn't going to win the African-American vote over President Obama this November. Knowing that, it would have been understandable if Romney declined the NAACP's invitation to visit Houston on Wednesday and address the group's annual convention. The prospect of speaking to a crowd that overwhelmingly supports your opponent is not only politically risky; it's personally intimidating. In such settings, and under such an intense microscope, one small misstep can snowball into a news-dominating disaster. The Romney campaign, known for being risk-averse, easily could have determined the risks outweighed the rewards and avoided the event, opting instead to have their candidate address the conference via video message.
But Romney showed up. With the critical eyes of the political world resting squarely upon him, Romney marched defiantly into the lion's den and delivered a speech that was direct, assertive and dispassionate. Undaunted, the man seeking to unseat the nation's first African-American president stood calmly before a group of his most fervent supporters and informed them that he, not Obama, is the one they've been waiting for.
"If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him," Romney told the crowd, pausing for added emphasis. As scattered boos echoed throughout the audience, Romney offered an unscripted -- and uncharacteristic -- display of bravado. "You take a look," he nodded.
It wasn't the first time his speech attracted the crowd's ire. Minutes earlier, while detailing his "five key steps" to restoring the economy, Romney promised to repeal the president's health care law -- casually referring to it as "Obamacare." The audience didn't like that, and they let Romney hear their displeasure, raining down boos on the Republican nominee. Romney appeared taken aback by the crowd's response, and for a few fleeting moments, it looked as if the Romney campaign's fear of an embarrassing episode would be realized.
Then something happened. Romney, often mocked for his robotic style and lack of nimbleness, stepped away from his script and succinctly explained his opposition to the Affordable Care Act: Business owners say it makes them less likely to hire new employees, he said. Romney then sought to reassure the skeptical crowd of his commitment to health care policies that protect society's most vulnerable and and provide effective care to those who need it.
The incident served as a microcosm of the broader occasion, one that revealed a different side of Romney. He easily could have played it safe in Houston, sticking to civil-rights issues and issuing abstract rebukes of Obama's economic and education policies. But he didn't. Instead, he went all-out, forcefully denouncing Obama's job performance and criticizing a law he knew had support among the Obama-friendly audience. Similarly, he could have ignored the boos following his "Obamacare" comment and continued with his carefully-scripted speech. But he didn't. Instead, he stopped and addressed the adversity head-on, explaining his position and with skill and authority.
Those who follow Romney's campaign and report regularly on his events often describe him as rote and guarded, someone whose speeches can seem sleepy, uninspired and vague. Those people saw a different candidate on the stage in Houston. Like a baseball team that grows complacent playing a stretch of home games, Romney displayed renewed focus and determination in front of the hostile road crowd. He spoke with aggravated empathy about the African-American unemployment rate reaching 14 percent. He hammered the issue of job creation, arguing that Obama's economic policies have disproportionately harmed minorities. And he expertly used education reform as a wedge between the president and his supporters in the audience, earning sustained applause when arguing that "candidates cannot have it both ways" -- i.e., Obama must choose between advancing education reforms and protecting teachers' unions.
It was a fine performance, one that delivered a distinct message to observers of all political stripes. Democrats saw a candidate who embraced adversity and wasn't afraid to mix it up. Republicans saw a candidate who was quick on his feet and took a punch without falling down. And independents saw a candidate who isn't the "extremist" or "panderer" his opponents portray him to be. To the contrary, his message to the liberal organization was consistent with his everyday conservative stump speech, and the optics of Romney confidently courting an opposition audience should play well with skeptical suburbanites eager for someone willing to set aside differences and talk about solutions.
There were plenty of pitfalls awaiting Romney in Houston. A more cautious candidate would have danced around them, if not avoided them altogether. That's the candidate we thought Romney was. Republicans should hope the new, aggressive Romney is here to stay.