GOP convention’s focus: Romney the professional

August 17, 2012

— Mitt Romney’s advisers are orchestrating a four-day Republican National Convention that is not so much designed to make Americans fall in love with the nominee, but rather to fall in like with the idea of him as the nation’s leader and a uniquely qualified businessman who can fix the economy.

The decision to focus heavily on Romney’s career background and economic policies is a departure from most conventions, which tend to mainly try to build a personal connection between the candidate and voters, especially for first-time nominees. It is also a tacit acknowledgment that Romney cannot win over enough swing voters by highlighting his personality and telling his life story alone.

Romney has struggled to connect with voters all year and has been battered all summer by attack ads from President Obama’s campaign. That has put his approval rating at 40 percent, among the lowest of all time at this point in a campaign, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month.

With less than three months to go and much ground to make up, his advisers believe that their best bet is to convince Americans that, love him or not, Romney is the solution to their problems. The Tampa convention’s theme — “A Better Future” — which organizers announced on Friday, underscores that calculation.

“We have the opportunity over four nights to present a case to the American people of why and how Barack Obama has failed and why Mitt Romney can do better and what he would do to make specific changes to turn around the economy,” said Russ Schriefer, a senior adviser who has decamped to Tampa to oversee the convention, which starts on Aug. 27.

“Who Governor Romney is is an important part of telling that story,” Schriefer added. “But the convention is not only going to focus on that. We’re going to talk about what the American people really care about, which is how can Governor Romney make their lives better.”

Many of the speeches and presentations are being designed to tell viewers how Romney plans to create jobs and shrink the debt. In addition to the politicians who will be on stage at every convention — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will deliver the keynote address, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is slated to introduce Romney for his acceptance speech — this year’s convention will feature a series of non-political people offering testimonials about Romney.

Campaign advisers said speakers are likely to include Olympic athletes to talk about Romney’s stewardship of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and small business owners who can talk about Romney’s patriotism and free-market economic principles.

“It’s a chance to talk about Romney, it’s a chance to talk about what the solutions are – it’s why this person at this moment is so right for this moment,” said Stuart Stevens, the campaign’s chief strategist.

Republicans outside the campaign said that, given Romney’s struggles to connect, they agreed with the convention approach.

“It’s a tough road to hoe after all these various attempts to try to make him the Ken Doll Next Door that you want to have over for a pot roast. They tried handing out chili, they tried him without a tie, and I’ve not seen a poll where America says we love Mitt Romney,” said a GOP strategist who has helped orchestrate past conventions and requested anonymity to offer a candid perspective.

But, the strategist added, “I’ve seen a lot of polls where America says this guy seems to have the demeanor, experience, package and skill set to actually cure these outrageous economic problems we’re having. That’s the direction I would take.”

Many political conventions, complete with Hollywood-quality propaganda videos streaming on jumbo-trons in professional sports arenas, are designed to inspire cults of personality. But Romney’s not planning his own version of “The Man From Hope” — the life story that Bill Clinton laid out at his 1992 convention.

To be sure, Romney’s convention will also include a healthy dose of the candidate’s personal biography. Organizers are planning prominent roles for Romney’s wife, Ann, and their five sons and 18 grandchildren, believing they help him come across as living room warm when he is so often boardroom cool. Campaign aides spent several days this summer filming the extended Romney clan together at their vacation compound on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee.

“You will see every night a different biographical slice of Mitt’s life come to life,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Romney. “We obviously see it as a platform for more deeply examining Mitt and Ann’s life.”

In his long quest for the presidency, Romney has not had a major moment that breaks through the noise of the campaign and leaves a lasting image in the minds of independent voters. But Romney’s prime-time convention speech, which he will deliver the night of Aug. 30, has the makings to be memorable.

“This is his moment,” said Tom Rath, a longtime adviser to Romney. “All the political stuff is gone in the eyes of most Americans…They’re going to look at this as who is this person? Can I wake up every morning for the next four years with this man as President of the United States?”

For months, advisers said, Romney has been pondering what he might say in his speech. He keeps a campaign trail diary on his iPad, and recently on the stump he has been both more contemplative and more open. He is sharing personal stories with audiences of strangers; at a fundraiser in South Carolina this week, Romney talked at length about a nephew with down syndrome, something he has rarely mentioned publicly.

“My sister is one of my heroes,” Romney said, lauding her character, her compassion and her faith in God. “My sister has eight children, the last of which was a down syndrome child…And that down syndrome child, he’s now 42, 43, still lives with her. Alright? She’s 70-something, 75, and she takes care of that 43-year-old down syndrome little boy – big boy now. Just the power of one person to affect and improve the lives of others.”

Romney is also playing a hands-on role in the selection of speakers as well as the stagecraft.

“He’s the kind of guy who makes lots of notes and thinks about this kind of stuff,” Rath said. “It’s going to have his fingerprints.”

Earlier this summer, aides showed Romney six options for stage designs to let him pick. But Romney, who after overseeing the Opening Ceremonies at the Salt Lake City Olympics fancies himself as having a trained eye for stagecraft, vetoed all six. He sent aides back to the drawing board before finally settling on a design he liked.

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