Two stories about Mitt Romney. In a conversation last year, a pair of former colleagues from his private- equity days were effusive in their praise of Romney’s intelligence, dedication and skills.
But there was something else, too. They said his inscrutable demeanor, the lack of personal warmth, never really changed, though both knew him for many years.
Funnyman Jon Stewart made a similar point in a different way. No fan of Romney, he told an interviewer that, if you had a “box marked ‘president’ and opened it, Romney would be inside.”
Compliments for Romney always come with caveats. As he goes to Tampa to claim the crown he sought for five years, the only unanimous idea is that Romney has many strengths and a few big holes in his game.
One indication is that, although he is locked in a tight race with President Obama, the incumbent is still favored in most quarters. A poll that had them tied also showed that 58 percent of respondents believed Obama would win.
It’s a familiar predicament for Romney, and points to the work he must do before Nov. 6. A likability deficit, a lack of enthusiasm, the soft support — they’ve haunted his campaign from the start.
He was counted out each time a new primary rival gained steam. It would be fair to say he vanquished them, but more accurate to say he outlasted them. He was better funded, and as they took turns rising and falling, he was the last man standing. But Obama is no Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry.
Romney’s bold choice of running mate, Paul Ryan, has helped stabilize a listing ship. Ryan’s fiscally conservative record energized the base, and his boyish, articulate presence has made the ticket more youthful and more substantive.
Yet that “reset” will prove ephemeral unless Romney can answer doubts about his core principles. To do that, Tampa must be much more than just error-free. The four-day infomercial must paint a fuller picture of a passionate and compassionate nominee. It must maximize his advantage in handling the economy, while avoiding anything that reinforces his negatives, including his wealth and history of flip-flopping.
The popular personalities who will testify on his behalf start with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who can be counted on to hammer how Obama failed as a leader. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will rouse the crowd with digs at Obama for being an apologist about American power, a contrast that is a double plus coming from a Latino.
Ann Romney and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will argue why women should be comfortable with the ticket. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, whose offer to speak at the Democratic convention was turned down, will offer a prayer, his presence a reminder of what he called Obama’s “war on religion.” Others will offer a salute to the troops, a rare break in a campaign where foreign policy and war are afterthoughts.
Ryan will hit the jobs issue hard and broaden the campaign canvas to include deficits, debt and entitlement reform.
But those are warm-up acts, and Romney’s turn Thursday night will be a make-or-break moment. With the largest audience he’s ever addressed, he will have an unfiltered opportunity to sell himself anew as the answer to a troubled nation.
He must offer details of his jobs and energy plans, but not too many. He will need to be strong and clear and, on occasion, funny. A display of warmth, including about his Mormon faith, is essential.
Most important, viewers in the hall and at home will give themselves a test by imagining him sitting in the Oval Office. The image in their heads must leave them confident he will measure up, that he will lead the nation to better days and their lives to better times.
It is the litmus test of whether Romney looks and sounds presidential. If he passes, he will have boosted himself to a higher level, one where victory is not only possible, but likely.
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