TAMPA — Mitt Romney has a lengthy to-do list for this week’s Republican convention here in Tampa, but it’s all aimed at one overriding priority: establishing the presumptive nominee as better equipped than President Obama to fix the ailing economy.
The convention affords Romney the opportunity, finally, to get on message and stay on message. The coming week will be highly scripted. Last week, thanks to Senate candidate Todd Akin’s bizarre comments about “legitimate rape” and Romney’s inexplicable comment Friday about birth certificates, was totally unscripted.
Convention planners are scrambling to now to remake the schedule, after announcing late Saturday they would delay the opening until Tuesday because of the threat posed by Tropical Storm Isaac. Officials claimed they are operationally ready for the convention, but the possible disruption from the storm creates unexpected problems for an event that has been months in the planning. Until the storm passes, no one can say with certainty what to expect the first days of next week.
Romney’s campaign has three objectives for the week: making the case as to why Obama has failed in office, offering an alternative to the administration’s policies and demonstrating why Romney is uniquely suited to the challenges the next president will face.
Democrats will try to distract from Romney’s convention, but Romney’s team intends to take full advantage of what four nights of speeches offer.
The convention will fill out what is still an incomplete biography of the candidate. “We’re going to tell the whole story,” said a senior Romney adviser, who declined to be identified in order to describe the goals and plans. “The whole thing.”
Romney has defined himself as a businessman who understands the private sector. Obama’s team has defined Romney as a vulture capitalist more interested in profit and jobs-and a politician with something to hide in his tax returns. That has sullied Romney’s image in the eyes of many voters.
There is much more that Romney’s team wants to say about his biography: his days at Bain Capital, certainly, but also his one term as governor of Massachusetts; his role in turning around the 2002 Olympics; his family as the center of his life; the role his Mormon faith has played in his life; and the role he has played through his church in helping others.
This story will be told through speeches, testimonials and videos; by friends, family acquaintances, Olympians and politicians — and by Romney, himself, when he takes the stage on Thursday night. Convention planners will use various high-tech bells and whistles to enhance the storytelling. Each night, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) will outline the program — to give continuity and clarity to the messaging — a new twist to a convention schedule.
Romney will have the biggest audience of the campaign to date: His advisers estimate that more than 35 million people will tune in Thursday night for his speech and that even when the major networks aren’t broadcasting, 10 million or more will be watching on any given night on cable, PBS and C-SPAN.
Romney comes to the convention in a deficit situation, thanks to the pounding he’s taken all summer. His image is less positive than most past candidates at the time of their conventions. Romney’s advisers know this but point to counter-evidence on the state of the race. They note that Romney, not the president, is now more trusted on the economy. “The Obama campaign,” said the Romney adviser, “is really the one in a hole.”
Romney advisers argue that most presidential elections are fought and won over the biggest issue in the minds of the voters. Some analysts who see Obama as having a narrow advantage have pointed to the 2004 campaign in which President George W. Bush had approval ratings about as low as Obama’s are today and still won, in part because his campaign battered Democratic nominee John Kerry the same way the president’s team has attacked Romney.
Romney advisers say there is one big difference between 2004 and 2012. In 2004, they argue, Bush was on the winning side of the No. 1 issue: terrorism and who would keep the country safer. Winning that debate was the key to Bush’s victory. If Romney can maintain a clear advantage on this year’s No. 1 issue, the economy, they argue that he can win in November.
Romney hopes to use his convention to lay out what his advisers see as the starkest choice in many elections, a deep philosophical divide between the two candidates on how they see the role of government, the role of the private sector and the policies that can restart America’s economic engine. Partisans have chosen sides in this debate; swaying the undecided voters will be Romney’s goal in Tampa.
Romney arrives at a moment when the polls continue to show a close race. He has gained some ground in several important states, including Wisconsin, the home of running mate Paul Ryan. Which is what his advisers claim is what they had hoped would be the case. They see a close race at Labor Day as one eminently winnable in November.
All this makes sense — the theory, the analysis, the planning-on paper at least. What’s left is the question of whether Romney can execute the plan and stay with it. He has been an uneven candidate over the past year, capable of high notes and missteps — as Friday’s comment seemingly wading into the birther issue showed.
Ryan’s selection was hailed as a moment when the campaign could reset from smallness to something larger. It hasn’t worked out that way yet, given the distractions created by the campaigns and seized on by the media. Romney’s challenge will be to break through the wall of cable chatter and tweets and running commentary with something compelling enough to slow the conveyor belt of news that moves so quickly.
Conventions aren’t as important as they once were, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t significant events. Romney needs a big week to make this election the kind of big choice he believes it must be for him to win.
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.