How can Mitt Romney connect to voters?

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," August 25, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," our Republican convention preview. As Mitt Romney prepares for his Tampa debut, polls show many Americans still have not warmed to him, so what can he do to connect?

Plus, the Republican Party then and now. A look at today's GOP -- what defines it, who is a part of it, and how has it changed?

And President Obama's new line of attack. This week, it is education, not Medicare, but the class war rhetoric stays the same.

Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

All eyes are on Mitt Romney as he makes his official debut as the Republican presidential nominee Thursday night in Tampa, Florida. Going into the convention, just 38 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of the former Massachusetts governor. What can he do to help turn that around?

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; Political Diary editor, Jason Riley; and editorial board member, Dorothy Rabinowitz.

So, Dorothy, people haven't warmed to Mitt Romney. We know that. What does he need to do to communicate with people to change that opinion of him?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: He has to open himself up in a way that he hasn't before. In a way that many politicians don't, but he especially. The talent on the political trail is you make a list of all of the things you are going to do. We're going to close this department, we're going to do this. What Mitt Romney has to do is sustain a speech, a long speech at the convention and elsewhere, where he says, I know there's anguish in this land. I know that there is long-term unemployment. He has to, instead of passing over that, and say, I'm going to fix it. He's going to say, I know what it should feel like to go to -- I know what it should feel like to go to the employment office, to have no answers, to have nothing. Let him draw a description of what Americans are feeling like. Everybody in America knows somebody who is unemployed. Everybody has a cousin, uncle. This reaches to the hard of showing who he is, they have never seen before someone who has incorporated.


GIGOT: OK, interesting. You are basically saying, to borrow a cliche from Bill Clinton, he needs to show people that he feels their pain?


GIGOT: Jason, do you agree with that?

JASON RILEY, EDITOR, POLITICAL DIARY: Well, one of the reasons that hasn't happened so far has to do with the Obama machine. He's been outspent. He will have a little more money to tap into after the nomination.


RILEY: Obama has been defining Romney with negative ads and negative ads work. So he will be able to push back some.

Whether he should use that opportunity to go toe-to-toe on likeability with Obama I'm not so sure.

GIGOT: Or empathy. I think she is saying empathy.

RILEY: I'm not sure. I think that might play to Obama's strength. He would do better to focus on his accomplishments as governor, keeping unemployment low, saving the Olympics in Utah, his business record success at Bain. Keep the focus on his accomplishments. Let Obama play the likeability game. I don't think that that plays to Romney's --


RABINOWITZ: The problem with this is it doesn't work. It has not worked. We have heard enough about the Olympics there. I hate to say this. I hate to bring up this subject. But Franklin Roosevelt, when he died, somebody was caught crying, and the reporter said to him, did you know Mr. Roosevelt? He said, I didn't know Mr. Roosevelt, but he knew me.

GIGOT: All right, Dan, embracing -- mediate the dispute, where do you come down on this? They are going to bring in these key testimonials all week to his business success, his Olympic success, Bain Capital, now embracing it as he did in an op-ed in -- Romney did himself in an op-ed in our paper. So they want to bring out this record of success and this personal portrait.

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: I don't disagree with Dorothy and Jason that Romney has to do these things. The election however is not about Mitt Romney. It is about the American people, and the situation they are in right now. I would push a little further than what Dorothy has suggested, which is that Mitt Romney is representing himself as a guy who understands business. He wrote and published a piece on the Wall Street Journal editorial page this Friday in which he described four or five businesses he worked with. He has to go out there and talk about what is in the minds of employers now who are not hiring the Americans who want jobs. Why aren't they doing that? That's something Mitt Romney understands. And what has Barack Obama done to prevent those employers from making those hires? He has to make them understand he knows the way the economy works and why it isn't working.

GIGOT: That speaks to his personal experience exactly.


GIGOT: What about the agenda, Jason? People are looking for answers. Right? The people that Dorothy talks about, who are hurting, they want to know, not only does Romney get it, but what is he going to do for them, and how is he going to do it specially? Tell me, what are the three, four or five items that he needs to layout, or just give me a couple that would reassure people that he has answers?

RILEY: Jobs foremost on people's minds.


GIGOT: But how?

RILEY: He would probably say, I need to lift the regulatory burdens off of businesses, give people some sense of security when it comes to the future, what tax rates are going to be and so forth. Everyone talking about this fiscal cliff we are on. That does not help in terms of job creation and economic growth. I want to give people some certainty. I think that's got to be part of his agenda in terms of what he would do differently than what Obama has done.

GIGOT: Dorothy?

RABINOWITZ: Well, it the doing that we have heard before. And, yes, we could use more of that. But the real sense I'm talking about is make people feel he knows what we are going through. That is the one thing that has fallen short in all polls. No, he doesn't really understand where I am at. This is the opportunity to say, yes, I know anguish.

HENNINGER: But then they have to know how they are going to get from where they are into a better future.


GIGOT: He has to do --


GIGOT: He has to do both, a personal and the --


GIGOT: And the polls are even, even with his personal approval being favorable as being down. This convention gives him a chance to break out if he can connect in some way.

All right. When we come back, the Republican Party then and now. Just how far has it come from the George Bush, Tom Delay years, from the reform governors to the Tea Party movement? Our panel looks at the new faces the GOP, next.


GIGOT: The Republican Party that will be on display next week in Tampa is not the same as even four years ago. Among those being prominently featured at the RNC this time around is a group of so-called reform governors, including the convention's keynote speaker, New Jersey's Chris Christie.

Jason, how has the Republican Party changed since the Bush years?

RILEY: Paul, I'd say the biggest change has been the rise of the Tea Party movement, which has helped the party. I think they've been a good influence. I think there's still an insurgent populist movement, but they are pushing the GOP in the right direction, towards cutting taxes, lowering spending, smaller government, all the types of things that they got away from unfortunately under George Bush.

GIGOT: Has the Tea Party been co-opted or are they really changing the GOP?

RILEY: I still think they have been co-opted. I still think they are a force for reform and for good within the party. I would argue the GOP leadership, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, in particular, have done a good job of trying to harness the energy of the Tea Party for the good of the party.

GIGOT: It's interesting, James, Ryan, Paul Ryan, symbol of reform in the U.S. Congress, trying to get control over government reform, the major institutions of government like Medicare, entitlements and so on. And then at the governor level, you've got these governors who were elected in 2010, most of them, although Mitch Daniels in Indiana before, but they are trying to shake-up the state government. what do they have in common?

JAMES FREEMAN, ASSISTANT EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: I think what's really new, what was new starting in 2010 with the Tea Party movement is Republicans always could build a political constituency to cut taxes. Now you have a constituency to control spending. What was new with Chris Christie was he could make the case for going after the political sacred cows, saying we need to rein in pensions, teachers unions. Scott Walker took it further with reform. And now --


GIGOT: Of collective bargaining and the ability of unions to dictate wages to the politicians.

FREEMAN: Right. And so I think the Tea Party agenda, which is smaller government, is largely reflected in the Republican agenda now. But the question is whether they have really changed the party? I don't think will be answered until next year if Romney is elected to see if those cuts really count.

GIGOT: See how they govern.

HENNINGER: I would push it just a little bit further. It is indeed true that the Tea Party was all about reducing spending, but it wasn't just spending. It was the fact that the United States government, federal government, and the states were at the edge of a fiscal cliff. California is a perfect example. It is going over the fiscal cliff. In Wisconsin, people like Scott Walker and Ohio John Kasich, Chris Christie, especially if New Jersey, just leveled with the people in New Jersey, we cannot go on the way we are or our state will face economic ruin. That was what the Tea Party was all about, not just the usual, we don't like government spending. It's that we can no longer afford these levels.

GIGOT: Four years ago, eight years ago, the Republican Party did not want to take on entitlements. Bush tried, but he didn't campaign on it much in 2004. He tried in 2005. He couldn't even get a vote out of the Republican Congress.

RILEY: And what James said about Scott Walker is right. You talk about a sacred cow, third rail, whatever metaphor you want to use, he took it to them and survived. And it sent a message to the rest of the party, the rest of the country, that you can push these reforms successfully and survive them.

But I think the presence of the Tea Party has been felt much deeper at the state level where they are in control of certain states. In Congress, the Republicans only control the House.

GIGOT: Right.

RILEY: There's some good Senators, and probably some more coming along the pipe in November. But when you don't control the presidency and you don't control one chamber, it is hard to make your presence felt.

GIGOT: What are the dividing lines that still exist within the party? The tax cut argument seems to have been won more or less by the tax cutters. Spending cutters at least rhetorically are there.

FREEMAN: Well, yes, I mean --


GIGOT: What are the other --


FREEMAN: This issue of taxes and spending is still not settled. You notice President Obama attacking Paul Ryan as some kind of a radical. The truth is most people in the Tea Party would like to balance the budget a lot sooner than Ryan.


I mean what --

GIGOT: Right.

FREEMAN: What he's put out is not a Tea Party budget. It is a way to bring back sanity over time, without drastic changes in the short term.

GIGOT: So there would be a fight?

FREEMAN: That will be a big question.

GIGOT: If Romney wins, there will be a very big fight over just how far they can go and how much to reform. What about immigration?

RILEY: Yes, that's a social issue that the party is going to have to come to terms with. Right now, fast-growing demographics, particularly in swing states. Right now, the latest Wall Street Journal poll --

GIGOT: Hispanics.

RILEY: Hispanics.


RILEY: The latest Wall Street Journal poll said Obama has a 35-point lead against Romney on this issue. It is an issue that the party has to deal with. The GOP platform committee met in Tampa earlier this week, tried to work out some language. It does include more security measures, border security, E-Verify, that sort of thing, but there's also a guest worker program in there, which is a good thing. So the party is really --


RILEY: The party is really struggling with this issue but they have to come to terms --


HENNINGER: Your point. If they lose the Hispanic vote, they are likely to lose the election.

RILEY: That's right.

HENNINGER: And they knew this was coming. And they've allowed it to happen. This is a big chunk of the electorate now.

GIGOT: Romney has to do better than McCain did, which I think was 31 percent among Hispanics. Bush got 44. He has got to get into the mid to upper 30s --


GIGOT: -- to be able to win this thing.

When we come back, forget Medi-scare. President Obama's attack the Romney/Ryan ticket on another front this week, accusing them of gutting American education, and you guessed it, to help the rich.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney's proposing these cuts to pay for a new $5 trillion tax cut that's weighted towards the wealthiest Americans.



GIGOT: President Obama opened up a new line of attack against his Republican rivals this week, shifting from Medicare to education. Making stops at colleges in Ohio and Nevada, the president claimed the budget authored by Republican VP candidate, Paul Ryan, contains devastating cuts to American education, a message repeated in a new campaign ad.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Some of our children's greatest experiences have been in smaller classrooms.

AD ANNOUNCER: But Mitt Romney says class sizes don't matter. And he supports Paul Ryan's budget, which could cut education by 20 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You can't do this by shoving 35 people in a class and just teaching to some tests.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: These are all issues that really he personally cannot relate to, to be able afford an education, to want the very best public education system for your children.


GIGOT: And joining the panel, senior editorial page writer, Collin Levy.

Collin, try to cut through this chatter. What are the facts about education spending?

COLLIN LEVY, SENIOR EDITORIAL PAGE WRITER: Let's start with the Obama budget this year. Obama's asking for one of the largest educating budgets in history, $70 billion, which is a 2.5 percent increase over last year. This is already over -- in 2009, the Education Department got a one-time bonus of about $100 million -- $100 billion --

GIGOT: $100 billion, yes. Extraordinary.


LEVY: -- out of -- out of -- right, sorry. A billion with a "B" -- out of the stimulus. All together, in his four years in office, if all this comes true, Obama will have spent as much in one term as the Bush administration spent in two terms. And Bush was hardly shirking educating spending either. These are astronomical numbers.

The issue is they are not really helping things. So we can keep -- I don't know how many more years we have to go on saying throwing more and more money at this issue isn't improving student performance. Those things have been essentially flat. So we need to get more innovative here, and that's what the Romney campaign needs to focus on.

GIGOT: Let's focus on this issue of class size because that been a dispute. The ad raises that issue. But Rick Hess, who is an education writer, quoted Arne Duncan, President Obama's education secretary, saying the following about class sizes. "Class size has been a sacred cow and I think we need to take it on. Give me and my wife a choice of putting our kids with a great teacher of 28 or a mediocre teacher of 23, and I know what I would choose every time," end quote.

So, James, class sizes -- does this add up?

FREEMAN: Right. I don't know if it's true or not, but the absolute conventional wisdom in the education establishment -- and I'm sure this view is shared by many in the Obama Department of Education --


GIGOT: Including Arne Duncan, apparently.

FREEMAN: Yes -- is that recent research shows that class sizes are not the big determinant of performance. Again, parents are skeptical and you can argue about how big is too big. But if Romney is questioning the link between class size and performance, he's in the company of, like I said, I would bet most of the Obama employees on this issue.

GIGOT: How does Romney respond to this ad or should he ignore it?

HENNINGER: I think the ad is fairly preposterous. Most parents and I think most people who went through the school system understand that class size is irrelevant. To me, what's it's always been about is, if you make smaller, you need more teachers, therefore you increase the size of the teachers' unions, which any governor will tell you is the most potent democratic force in his state. That's why Obama wants to spend so much money to decrease the size of the classes.

GIGOT: Collin, what about --


GIGOT: Go ahead.

LEVY: I was just going to say --


LEVY: -- here in Chicago, on class sizes, too, some of the best schools are the ones with the largest class sizes. That's something very logical. Parents look at districts where schools are doing well and they say, hey, why I don't I rent an apartment over there and I can just move my kid into that school district. So often times, it's some of the best school districts that end up being the ones that are the most crowded. And the class sizes are doing just fine.

GIGOT: The president is really trying to make an issue of Pell Grants, James, which are the federal aid to college students. Something like 60 percent of all college students now get some kind of Pell Grant, at least they did in 2009 and 2010. And it cost $36 billion that year. This program started to help the poor. It has become a vast entitlement now for --


FREEMAN: Yes, I think that's right. A lot of our viewers think of the Pell Grant as probably something for underprivileged kids. But it has become this huge middle class entitlement. It's similar to the stimulus spending blowout that Collin was referring to. The Obama spending binge ran up some of these costs so high that any pull-back from that to a sane level of deficit spending is seen as some kind of draconian cut. Pell Grants, $36 billion a year. He has doubled it. No a modest increase.

GIGOT: This is the problem with the Beltway definition of cut. It is not really a cut.


GIGOT: It is just a slower level of spending increase that they define as a cut.

FREEMAN: Right. And the point is, if this is money thrown out essentially to everyone, it doesn't make college more affordable, because colleges, over time, have are very efficient at pocketing that extra money that comes from the federal government. Tuition rises accordingly. It doesn't make anyone --

HENNINGER: And as Collin pointed out, performance levels are flat. It relates to our original point in this program about the Tea Party, which is asking, why are we spending more and more money without much to show for it? That's the issue.

GIGOT: Romney makes a turn, pins it on accountable, teacher tenure, vouchers and choice, and he can win the education argument?

HENNINGER: I think he can. Because I think it's instinctively commonsensical to most voters.

GIGOT: All right.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits and Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Collin, first to you.

LEVY: Paul, I have a hit for the state of Alaska, which this week sued the Attorney General Eric Holder over the 1965 Voter Rights Act. The state says it shouldn't have to ask the Justice Department's permission to make changes in its own election laws. It's perfectly capable of making those decisions on its own. Now, Holder has been using the Voting Rights Act and voting laws to drum up political support this election season, targeting states like Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania. It's good to see Alaska saying they want no part of it.

GIGOT: All right, Collin, thanks.


RABINOWITZ: This is hit for Major Gregory Gross, who presides over the trial of Major Nidal Hasan, who, you remember, murdered 13 Americans at Fort Hood and in 2009, and who has now decided he must grow a beard in direct violation of Army rules. Colonel Gross will not allow this. And bravo to him. So stemmed the trial of Major Hasan, who, remember, shouted "Allah Akbar," and then had it classified as an act of workplace violence by our Defense Department. Outrageous.

GIGOT: All right.


FREEMAN: This is a hit to Pittsburgh Pirates who are on track for their first winning season in 20 years. I think it's an inspiration for all Americans who are tempted to think the American economy can't come back, that we're destined to some kind of decline. Now, I'm not saying we need to wait 20 years for the economic rebound. But good for the Pirates. An inspiration.


FREEMAN: Yes. Absolutely.


GIGOT: And remember, if you have your own "Hit or Miss," please send it to us at Be sure to follow us on Twitter at JERonFNC.

That's it for this week's edition of the "Journal Editorial Report. " Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. We hope to see you right here next week.

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