Debate performances by a presidential candidate are sometimes judged harshly. A single mistake or misstatement — played in an endless cable loop — can overwhelm the rest of a performance. Convention speeches, in contrast, are often judged charitably even when they don’t deserve it. The candidate manages to say the intended words. The audience is enthusiastic. The balloons drop on cue. While the press can easily spot a debate gaffe, it has a harder time assessing rhetorical quality or mediocrity.
Recall President Obama’s 2008 convention speech, which is not an easy task. The speech was aggressively unmemorable. Its policy was uncreative, its tone was snide, its applause lines were flat. But this did nothing to dent Obama’s electoral prospects or even his rhetorical reputation. Convention speeches are important, but often graded on a curve.
Heading into his big speech, Mitt Romney has an additional advantage. As I argue in my Tuesday column, the political bar he needs to clear is not particularly high. If on November 6 he is broadly viewed as competent, mainstream and well intentioned, he has a good shot at winning the presidency. He does not need to present the vision of a promised land, just a land where unemployment is below 8 percent.
Politicians, however, have been known to trip over even a low bar. By the time he leaves Tampa on Friday, Romney will need to accomplish three things:
● Humanization. Romney has a personal warmth challenge. But precisely because this chilly image of Romney is so vivid, thawing it should not be too difficult. Merely describing the health struggles, spirit and grace of his wife Ann would give Romney a point of human contact with millions of Americans.
● Reassurance. Romney should present his conservative economic views and philosophy. Yet too often Republicans stop here. Voters need to see Romney take an additional step — explaining how and why his economic reforms would benefit people of every background. Romney needs to convey an awareness that an American president serves everyone, even people who don’t vote for him. Even if this doesn’t convert many Democrats, it would help reassure many independents.
● Characterizing his opponent. Is Obama in over his head? Well-intentioned, but liberal to the core? Too nasty, negative and partisan? Romney needs to settle on a diagnosis, then press his case in a tone that is tough but not mean. This balance is best accomplished through humor — preferably humor that is actually funny and doesn’t involve repugnant conspiracy theories.
Achieving these objectives does not require the rhetorical reach of the New Frontier or the ideological repositioning of the New Democrats or Compassionate Conservatives. It requires just enough self-revelation and craft to make Romney an acceptable alternative for voters who already believe their nation is on the wrong track.