TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney goes before America this week with a historic opportunity to introduce and define himself to a nation weary of four years of economic anxiety and seriously considering voting him into the White House this fall.
Beginning this week at the Republican National Convention, and continuing through Romney’s prime-time speech Thursday accepting his party’s presidential nomination, Republicans will tell three stories to an audience that could number in the tens of millions.
They’ll describe their view that President Barack Obama has mismanaged and damaged an already fragile economy. They’ll describe how a government run on conservative principles can revive that economy. And they’ll trumpet how Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and running mate Paul Ryan are a peerless blend of business and government experience and acumen, uniquely qualified to lead that charge.
They’ll stand before a nation open to – and yearning for – a change in direction. Three out of four Americans think the country is on the wrong track. A majority says it’s worse off than four years ago. Unemployment has topped 8 percent since February 2009, the month after Obama took office. Economic growth has been tepid. Congress has been deadlocked and unable to tackle the ballooning federal debt, or much else. People will be listening for fresh ideas and trying to sense if Romney and Ryan have the smarts and the savvy to turn things around.
The convention officially opens its four-day run Monday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, but will quickly recess until Tuesday. Tropical Storm Isaac is threatening the area, and organizers decided Saturday to postpone major events until Tuesday. While no revised schedule has been announced, the convention’s 2,286 delegates are expected Tuesday to formally nominate the 65-year-old Romney.
That evening, the convention is scheduled to feature Romney’s wife, Ann, as well as the keynote address by blunt-spoken New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Ryan, a favorite of fiscal conservatives, will speak Wednesday. Romney will speak Thursday.
The Republicans will offer the kind of carefully scripted affair that’s been typical of party conventions for more than 30 years. The GOP conclave’s chief mission is to introduce Romney to a vast audience of voters who did not watch the Republican primaries – about 5 million to 6 million watched top primary debates this year, while nearly 40 million watched Republican nominee John McCain at his convention four years ago.
“You have all these surrogates who will talk about the convention at the water coolers, and that’s who you are playing to," said David Carney, President George H.W. Bush’s White House political director. "It’s not like you can have Chris Christie come to every town and give a speech."
No convention is without its stumbles. With as many as 15,000 media personnel looking for stories, there’s potential for all kinds of distractions. “Little fights can get significant media coverage," said Carney.
The Romney forces will be ready to pounce if things go awry. "We were on high alert for a guy in, say, Aisle 12, Section C, with a sign that reporters would notice and might embarrass us, and I’m sure the Romney people will be, too," said Curt Anderson, the Republican Party political director in 1996.
This convention has several potential flashpoints.
One is Romney himself. Many conservatives have long been suspicious of his commitment to their cause, and their reluctance allowed the primary and caucus season to drag on through the spring, as Romney had some trouble squelching challengers, most with little stature in the party.
The conservative qualms stem from Romney’s only time in office, governing Massachusetts from 2003-2007 as a center-right executive who championed the state law creating a near-universal health care system. That law was widely regarded as a model for the 2010 federal health can plan that Republicans hate – and that Romney eagerly wants to repeal.
Keith Appell, a Republican consultant, thought the Republican zeal to win back the White House – as well as polls saying the party has a reasonable chance – will leave convention-goers "exceptionally energized."
Not without some blips. Supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul plan a series of events to promote their candidate and his libertarian agenda, notably a noon rally Sunday at the University of South Florida’s 11,000-seat Sun Dome.
Paul, who has about 160 delegates, is unlikely to force much, if any, of a floor fight or debate over the platform – he doesn’t have the numbers – but he could get a lot of attention promoting views starkly different from those of Romney, such as ending what he calls the "dishonest, immoral and unconstitutional" Federal Reserve System. His son Rand, a Kentucky senator and hero to many conservatives, will address the convention.
Also lurking will be Romney’s other prominent challengers, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who got strong primary and caucus backing from diehard conservatives, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Both are known for off-the-cuff remarks that garner lots of media attention.
The Romney forces want the convention to become a narrative that builds over four days.
"Romney has to clarify his mission and lay out his vision from the start," said Republican consultant Bill Dal Col, "and end with a strong, powerful speech with a strong emotional tone to it."
The first chapter – on Obama – will be the easiest to communicate.
"In many ways, Obama is a president who doesn’t fit into the historical context," argued Sal Russo, a veteran Sacramento, Calif.-based Republican consultant.
Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, presidents have boasted of their eagerness to shrink the size of government – and have been largely unsuccessful – while reducing dependence on its safety net. Obama has reversed that trend, Russo argued, instead proudly returning the government to its New Deal-Great Society role as the guarantor of income and opportunity, regardless of cost.
The second chapter of the convention story will promote the Romney-Ryan plan. An array of party stars – though not former President George W. Bush or 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin – will tout Romney’s blueprint for cutting marginal income tax rates 20 percent across the board, chopping the size of government to 20 percent of the economy – down from the current 24 percent – and changing how future seniors get health care coverage.
"They have to show they have an economic plan that will work, and connect to middle-class voters," said Mark McKinnon, a top adviser to George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. That will be tricky, since the plan could involve ending some popular tax breaks, like the mortgage interest deduction, and dramatically changing Medicare.
There will be some mention of national defense and foreign policy, but probably not much. Romney’s July trip abroad was full of stumbles, and polls show those subjects are not high on most Americans’ lists. "You can’t talk about every issue," said Carney.
Finally, Romney and Ryan will try to seal the deal personally. Democrats have tried to paint Ryan, whose "Path to Prosperity" proposes dramatic changes in federal spending, as a heartless conservative eager to slash government spending without regard for human consequences. Ryan is figuring his boyish charm and matter-of-fact knack for explaining difficult concepts will prove appealing.
On Thursday night, Romney will stand alone before the American people and explain why he wants to be their 45th president.
"It’s kind of like the Olympics," said Carney. "You have all these trials, and people watch."
But it’s the finals that count and have the potential to be long remembered.
"You have to tell a good story," said Carney, "and the story has to have legs."