What Mitt Romney needs to do in his convention speech — in 5 easy steps

August 30, 2012

TAMPA -- When former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney takes the stage just after 10 pm Thursday night at the Republican National Convention here, he'll have lots of work to do in the 40 (or so) minutes allotted for his acceptance speech.


Virtually everyone gathered here in Tampa -- and by that we mean virtually every person in the Republican political class and the political media -- has an opinion about what Romney should say and how he should say it.

We talked to a number of GOP strategist types over the past 24 hours to get their impressions of what Romney should say tonight. Their takes, plus a few thoughts of our own, are below.

* Mitt the Man: Romney tells his own personal story sparingly -- and not all that well. That has to change tonight for the speech to be deemed a success. While Romney will never reach the rhetorical heights in re-telling his life story of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, he has to find a way to break through the idea that most people have of him as a buttoned up, entitled rich guy.  He has a good example to follow in doing just that; his wife Ann's speech on Tuesday night was an effective re-casting of the Romney narrative from one centered on huge homes and car elevators to one centered on a turned-over sawhorse as a desk and tuna fish as a preferred meal.  Even more important than what Romney says about himself, however, may be how he says it.  Romney has to look more comfortable in his own skin than he has in past big speeches when talking about himself.

* Religion as Romney's secret weapon?: As a corollary to that first point, we have long argued that Romney is far better off embracing his Mormonism than running from it.  For a candidate who has spent the last five-plus years fighting the perception that he lacks any consistent core, Romney's dedication to his faith could fill that void.  And yet, as we noted above, he's never been comfortable talking about any aspect of his personal life with his religion at the top of that list. The question for Romney tonight is whether he can borrow a bit of the language -- in sentiment if not in the actual words -- of Paul Ryan's speech on Wednesday in which the Wisconsin Republican noted that while the two men don't share the same church, they share the same values.  If Romney doesn't talk about his faith in some somewhat extended way, count us as believing he made a mistake.

* Ignore the room: The biggest mistake a nominee can make in his acceptance speech is to target the few thousand people in the convention hall.  Those people are already in Romney's camp; they are the most active of  party activists.  What Romney needs to do is remember that the real audience for his speech are the millions of people watching it on their TV sets. And for many of those people, it may be their first extended glimpse of Romney ever. That means Romney should largely steer away from throwing red meat to the conservative crowd -- the audience will be amped up for Romney almost no matter what he says -- and instead focusing on telling his story and laying out his vision for moving the country forward.

* The vision "thing": Speaking of laying out a vision, Romney needs to do it.  Not a series of policy proposals -- although he probably should do a bit of that too -- but rather a big vision of where he would take the country.  To date, Romney has largely run on two conceits: 1. I am not Barack Obama 2. I can bring business principles to governance. To which many voters seem to say "Yes, but....". There's a reason that although the economy continues to be an anchor around the feet of President Obama, Romney isn't soaring. And it's because people want more from Romney. Remember that voters tend to want to cast a vote FOR something/someone rather than just against someone/something. Tonight is Romney's chance to give people a big -- and positive -- vision to vote for.

* Serious man for serious times: Romney will never match President Obama in the charisma department. But, that's not necessarily a bad thing.  "Romney just needs to be who he is – an executive who makes decisions and gets results," said Republican consultant Curt Anderson. "We’ve had four years of Mr. Personality and it hasn’t helped our economy.  That’s what Romney needs to convey tonight, and I bet he will."  Romney has to be careful not to be too workmanlike in his address (see "the vision thing" above) but the more he can project himself as a guy who may not bowl you over as a speaker but who has the resume to make the economy better in office, the better he will do.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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