If Mitt Romney’s reluctance to bare his soul made it easier for his critics to define him, as his wife says, his acceptance speech tonight for the Republican presidential nomination is his big chance to change that.
Romney, 65, a wealthy former business executive who served as Massachusetts governor and as a bishop in the Mormon church, has posted a chronic likability deficit against President Barack Obama in surveys -- 23 points in the latest Gallup poll.
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That’s left the race a statistical tie even as voters suggest they’d be willing to turn Obama out of office because of the nation’s slow economic recovery.
Romney is under pressure to show undecided voters more personality and emotion even as fiscal conservatives in his own party -- including many in the Republican National Convention hall in Tampa, Florida -- say he must more clearly define his plans for reining in the deficit and improving the economy.
“I want to see Mitt being Mitt, do a good job explaining what he’s all about, and to give people a reason to trust him,” said Martha Jenkins, 50, a delegate from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“Sometimes there’s a tendency for consultants to over-prep a candidate so they come across as being stiff,” she said. “The key to all of it is not to be something he isn’t.”
Convention speeches usually don’t decide the outcome of the race, said Tony Fratto, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush -- though he said they were seen as pivotal to wins by Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992.
“This is a self-promotional business we’re in,” Fratto said. “You need to sell yourself, your character, your ideas, your confidence, to voters.
“Liking the guy can be overemphasized,” he said. Romney, a father of five, “needs to make some connection with people so they can feel comfortable that they can welcome him into their living rooms every night for the next four years.”
Romney and his team have sent mixed signals about how personal he’ll get tonight and whether he’s out to win more hearts or just more minds.
He’s expected to address his Mormon faith, as part of an effort by the campaign to humanize the candidate by talking more about his leadership role in his church. Before he speaks, members of his church will testify about how Romney helped them.
“He’s going to talk about what’s informed his values, what’s informed his outlook,” said campaign adviser Kevin Madden. “Of course, his faith is an important part of that.”
Romney’s wife, Ann, in her speech on the convention’s opening night, emphasized her husband’s capacity for love, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said love isn’t as important as respect.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who will introduce Romney tonight, said what he wants to hear from the nominee is, “What role should government play in America? What role should government play in our economy?”
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said Romney must offer more specificity on his fiscal plans and a greater sense of familiarity.
“In my state, at least, most people know of Mitt Romney,” he said. “They don’t know Mitt Romney.”
Romney, who spent yesterday addressing the American Legion in Indiana, has been preparing for his convention speech for months. He talked with advisers and jotted down possible themes as he campaigned.
Among the past presidential speeches he read was Obama’s nomination acceptance address at the Democrats’ 2008 convention.
“It’s really a brilliant speech,” Romney told an outdoor rally in Powell, Ohio, on Aug. 25.
The nominee, who majored in English at Brigham Young University, often wrote his own speeches during his 2008 White House bid. Strategist Stuart Stevens persuaded Romney to let others handle that task in this campaign. Still, aides say he often fiddles with the text until the last minute.
Over the weekend, he spent hours practicing his delivery at Brewster Academy, a private school with a 500-seat stadium near his lakeside home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Continuing to tinker with the speech, he huddled with aides on his plane and in his hotel suite across the street from the Tampa convention center.
Even in Poll
Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, said as of yesterday polls showed Obama with 47 percent of national support and Romney at 46 percent.
“It’s not a do-or-die” speech for Romney, Newport said. “But it’s an opportunity that history shows usually benefits a candidate.”
Asked who could better manage the economy, voters put Romney on top, 52 percent to 43 percent. Asked who’s likable, Obama led 54 percent to 31 percent.
The question for Romney is whether to focus on bolstering his strength or improving his weakness, Newport said.
“It’s very tricky to say, ‘Would you rather be an unliked CEO who can run the economy well, or a very well-liked president under whom the economy has not done well?’”
Since 1964, the average nominee has gotten a 5-point bump coming out of the convention, though it may last only days, Newport said. In 2008, Obama got a 4-point bounce and Republican John McCain a 6-point bounce.
To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Tampa at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Tampa at email@example.com