TAMPA — When Mitt Romney strode onto a windswept New Hampshire farm last summer to begin his presidential bid, he spoke about jobs and taxes and a restoration of American might. What he didn’t talk about was himself.
It took 455 more days, when he stepped Thursday night onto a soft wooden stage designed to evoke a living room, for Romney to offer America a look inside himself.
In accepting the Republican nomination, Romney spoke emotionally about his Mormon faith and church community, about his romance with Ann and raising five boys, about his mother’s feminist streak and his father’s entrepreneurial spirit.
The evening’s program amounted to a high-definition showcase of Mitt the Man — an all-out effort to convince voters of his character, compassion and convictions.
Romney’s advisers see President Obama as beatable, but worry that their candidate’s likability deficit is his greatest liability. And so Romney arrived in Tampa with a mission: Move more toward becoming a destination candidate than a default candidate. Offer Americans the personal stories that help connect the bullet points of his résumé.
On the campaign trail, Romney is sometimes awkward and emotionally distant, a multimillionaire who processes data but struggles to show he is in touch with folks’ everyday struggles. He was not that man Thursday night.
At times he seemed to choke up, his eyes watery.
“Mom and Dad were married 64 years, and if you wondered what their secret was, you could have asked the local florist – because every day Dad gave Mom a rose, which he put on her bedside table,” Romney said. “That’s how she found out what happened on the day my father died. She went looking for him because that morning, there was no rose. My mom and dad were true partners, a life lesson that shaped me by everyday example.”
Once Romney became a father himself, he joked, his five boys “seemed to have this need to reenact a different world war every night.” And he talked about the kinship he and Ann felt with other families in their church congregation.
“We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways,” Romney said. “And that’s how it is in America. We look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad. It is both how we live our lives and why we live our lives.”
Families that Romney aided during his years as a volunteer bishop at his Mormon church took to the stage with their own moving personal testimonials. Pam Finlayson, her voice cracking, talked about how Romney visited her sick daughter, Kate, in intensive care.
“When he looked down tenderly at my daughter, his eyes filled with tears, and he reached out gently and stroked her tiny back. He didn’t just see a tangle of plastic and tubes and wires. He saw our beautiful little girl, and he was clearly overcome with compassion for her,” Finlayson said.
Kate died last year. “When it comes to loving our neighbor, we can talk about it or we can live it,” Finlayson said. “The Romneys live it every single day.”
On the convention floor, many delegates were moved.
Romney and his family believe that talking about their good deeds is unseemly — and asking their beneficiaries to do so for political gain is inappropriate. But Romney decided that at the biggest moment of his political life, he had to. Voters expect it.
“Americans have a choice — a decision,” Romney said. “To make that choice, you need to know more about me and about where I will lead our country.”
So in the hours before Romney addressed the convention, Ted Oparowski, a retired firefighter, accompanied by his wife, Pat, spoke emotionally about how Romney assisted in caring for their dying son, David, helping the 14-year-old compose his will and, later, delivering his eulogy. “David’s story is a part of Mitt’s story,” Ted Oparowski said.
Romney’s youngest son, Craig, made a pitch to Hispanic voters by delivering the first half of his speech in Spanish. Then, switching to English, he said, “It’s easy to forget that the story of my father’s success begins with the story of two immigrants — my grandfathers — who came to this country with little more than hope in the opportunity of America.”
Meanwhile, Robert White, one of Romney’s fellow founding partners at Bain Capital, who has avoided the spotlight throughout the campaign, talked about Romney helping their partner find his missing daughter in New York.
“Mitt said, ‘We can’t just stand by and do nothing. We need to go find her,’ ” White said. “He closed down the entire office, took all of us to New York and mobilized a search effort. Within days, we found her. And a mom, a dad and a daughter were reunited.”
A lengthy biographical video played featuring not just Romney’s business and political record but also the poverty agenda of his dad, George, and the joy that Mitt Romney felt becoming a father himself and his frugality at home (he covered up an ill-fitting kitchen light bulb with tin foil and duct tape). When the video finished, the musical interlude was Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
Convention organizers also offered interviews with close friends of Romney who have not previously been used as campaign surrogates.
“He’s accustomed to actions speak louder than words; that’s his ethos,” said Ellen Roy Herzfelder, who worked for Romney in his Massachusetts Cabinet. “So I don’t think he’s used to talking about himself, but I think it’s important that he does, and I think he realizes that in the public square he needs to talk more about who he is because people want to know.”
Without fully fleshing out his biography himself, Romney allowed Obama’s campaign to try to define him. And after a barrage of negative Obama ads, Romney arrived in Tampa with one of the lowest likability ratings of any presidential nominee in recent history. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 41 percent of registered voters view him favorably while 50 percent hold an unfavorable opinion.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said at a breakfast with reporters and editors of The Washington Post and Bloomberg News that Romney would have to find a “Romneyesque way of showing who he is.”
“I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist about this,” Bush said, “but I do think it’s interesting that a guy who has been incredibly successful in his life, in his marriage, in his family, in his business, in his commitment to his community is viewed as kind of flawed, whereas others, because they can express themselves in a more, you know, human way or whatever, even though they have imperfections that are, you know, quite enormous, get credit.”