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When the storm clouds clear, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party will face a compressed political convention that will make the task of balancing biography and criticism of President Barack Obama more difficult.
The convention’s new opening night may present the greatest challenge with Ann Romney’s address aimed at women and independent voters, as tough-talking governors -- New Jersey’s Chris Christie the foremost -- expected to rally the party’s faithful with attacks on the president. The candidate’s wife, in her speech tomorrow, will try to humanize her husband, introducing him as a loving spouse and father of five.
On the convention’s second day, Paul Ryan will represent the voice of the party’s anti-tax grassroots activists and a new generation of Republican leadership. He’ll probably highlight the tax-and-spending issues that were among the reasons Romney chose the Wisconsin congressman as his running mate.
Romney’s life story will be presented on the convention’s final night through Olympians and fellow members of his Mormon faith, before the Republican nominee makes the case for himself, trying to convince voters that he can relate to them and offers a legitimate alternative to Obama.
Some of that could still change as a result of Tropical Storm Isaac, which left Republicans yesterday trying to reconfigure their convention -- after months of planning -- to try to avoid having their campaign message diluted by the storm.
Romney’s top convention planner demurred when asked about the possibility the convention could be extended by a day and said the party is watching the weather.
“We are planning on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” Russ Schriefer, a senior Romney strategist, told reporters on the conference call yesterday. “It’s a hypothetical question.”
Reducing the convention from four days to three will mean that the daily sessions will be lengthened and some portions eliminated. The planned prime-time speakers will get time on the stage.
“All of the headliner speakers I’ve been able to find a place for,” Schriefer said. “There have been a few speakers who weren’t headliners who we had to let go.”
Republicans played down the disruption to their convention.
“It’s a logistical nightmare, but it’s not a political nightmare,” said Charlie Black, a Romney adviser who helped reschedule the Republican convention in St. Paul four years ago when the party decided to cancel a day of events as Hurricane Gustav headed toward the Gulf Coast.
The 2008 convention was still a success, Black said, because most voters tune in only for speeches given by the nominee, his spouse and the vice-presidential candidate.
“We’ll obviously get all that in,” he said. “What you’re doing is trying to reorder the other 10 percent.”
Republican Party leaders announced Aug. 25 that they planned to essentially eliminate the first day of the convention because of wind and rain crossing Florida, among the most hurricane-prone states in the nation. About 50,000 visitors will be in the Tampa area for the convention, including delegates, members of the media, protesters and security teams.
Romney, 65, and his chief campaign strategist, Stuart Stevens, spent yesterday afternoon practicing his convention speech at a private high school near his vacation home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Romney expressed concern for people in the storm’s path.
“I hope everybody’s fine there,” he told reporters. “It’ll be a great convention.”
The convention is supposed to be Romney’s debut for Americans who haven’t been paying much attention to the presidential race, where he can make his argument against Obama and share his life story.
Another goal is to boost his favorability rating among voters. A CNN/ORC International Poll taken Aug. 22-23 showed that among likely voters 53 percent say Obama cares about their needs, while just 40 percent say that about Romney.
Romney’s advisers designed the national convention to show off their candidate’s softer side, in an effort to combat a summer wave of Democratic attacks on his character.
Because the networks weren’t planning to carry today’s session anyway, the effect will be “minimal,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
“The real challenge is one that is common to all challengers: How do you make a strong case against the incumbent while making a positive case for yourself?”
“Candidates who attack too harshly can come across as mean,” Pitney said. “But candidates who just accentuate the positive will not give voters a reason to replace the incumbent.”
Romney needs to make the case that he understands the everyday struggles of voters, he said.
“The main rap against Romney is that he’s a rich guy who doesn’t understand the problems of ordinary Americans. Romney can’t plausibly pretend that he’s just a regular Joe,” Pitney said. “But he can talk about the ways in which faith and family have kept him in touch with the problems of everyday life.”
Republican strategist John Feehery said the condensed convention works in the party’s favor.
“You’re best at messaging when you have a shorter time frame,” he said. “Brevity is helpful for them. It helps tighten their message.”
Other than Romney himself, the convention speakers won’t necessarily make a lasting impression on voters, he said.
“At the end of the day, people are going to remember Mitt Romney’s speech,” Feehery said.
The convention’s toughest assault against Obama had been scheduled for today. The theme was to be “we can do better” and would highlight Americans hurt by the economic downturn.
Schriefer said that theme would now be woven into each day’s presentations.
On Aug. 29, the evening Ryan gives his speech, speakers were instructed to center their remarks on Republican proposals to improve the economy for middle-class families. Before Romney formally addresses the gathering on Aug. 30, Olympic athletes who participated in the 2002 Salt Lake City games organized by Romney and members of his Mormon church were to give testimonials about his leadership skills.
The decision to speak about Romney’s religion -- a major part of his life that he has mostly kept private -- illustrates the extent of Republican efforts to humanize him. Recent polls have shown Romney with high unfavorable ratings, after a months- long onslaught of Democratic attack ads focusing on his tenure at Bain Capital LLC, questions about his finances, and his refusal to release additional tax returns.
Even the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired convention stage, designed to resemble “America’s Living Room,” seeks to convey approachability and warmth. Thirteen high-resolution screens have been set up to broadcast quotes, pictures, and tweets complimenting the party’s message. A house band will provide musical entertainment and a debt clock will remind voters of Romney’s commitment to fiscal discipline.
-- With assistance from Catherine Dodge and Phil Mattingly in Tampa. Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Jodi Schneider
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Tampa at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at firstname.lastname@example.org