Romney’s Moment in the Spotlight
The Republican Party National Convention begins Monday in Tampa, Florida and this is probably the most important Republican convention since the year 2000 when then-Texas Governor George W. Bush made his case to the nation.
The public opinion polls show Mitt Romney within striking distance of President Barack Obama as the president seeks a second four-year term. But given the weak state of the economy and the dismal voter attitudes that show up in the polls, shouldn’t Romney be doing better? Polls show people don’t like the president’s handling of the economy, but they do like him personally. On the other hand the Obama campaign has done an effective job of trying to define Romney in a more negative light that, in some ways, has put Romney on the defensive on the eve of the party gathering in Tampa. Among other things, Democratic attack ads have focused on Romney’s wealth and his refusal to release more than two years of his income tax returns.
Romney Makes his Case
Mitt Romney will give his nomination acceptance speech next Thursday, the final night of the Republican convention. This is his best opportunity yet to reintroduce himself to the American people and make his own case for the White House.
Surveys show that a majority of voters believe Romney would do a better job of dealing with the economy, creating jobs and cutting the size of government. What’s lacking is a personal connection between Romney and voters, especially those who are not hard core Republicans.
More than any other vote, the vote for president is personal. It’s not just about the state of the country or who sides with you on key issues. It’s also about who do you want in the Oval Office? Who do you want as leader of the free world?
People are jaded about politics in this country, no question about it. But hope still abides in many that they can be inspired when they go to make a choice for president, even amid all the disappointments that have occurred in recent decades.
Romney comes off as a well-organized, efficient, somewhat cold-blooded CEO whose main interest is in rebooting the economy and getting people back to work. A lot of people may be willing to buy the theory, but are put off somewhat by Romney’s personality and a seeming inability to instill passion and inspire voters with soaring rhetoric and a thought-out vision for the future.
Of course, many Republicans argue that is one of the things that got Barack Obama elected four years ago, and look where we are now. But many Republicans do acknowledge that Romney has a ways to go yet in actually connecting with voters in terms of whom he really is and where he wants to take the country.
The advantage in this area remains with the president. But the Republican convention offers Romney his best chance yet to alter that dynamic a bit and at least become more competitive with Mr. Obama on this question.
Abortion a Possible Distraction
One of the more fascinating aspects of the recent controversy involving Missouri Republican Congressman and now Senate candidate Todd Akin is the apparent inability of the national Republican Party and candidate Romney to force him out of the race against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill. Akin offended scores of voters, especially women, and alarmed leaders in his own party with his comments that in cases of what he called “legitimate rape,” women don’t get pregnant because they have biological ways to “shut that whole thing down.”
Akin has apologized for his comments, but so far has resisted Republican calls for him to abandon his Senate bid. Akin has been a champion of the religious right and anti-abortion activists in Congress and one of the reasons he’s vowing to stay in the race is so he won’t let them or their cause down. This despite the fact that Romney and his running mate and Akin friend, Congressman Paul Ryan, have both urged him to consider political reality and drop out of the race.
It was a little head-spinning to see how fast Romney and other Republican Party leaders jumped on Akin in hopes of getting him to withdraw, but then the stakes are pretty big. Missouri is only one of 33 Senate races this year, but Republicans have long counted on a victory there on their way to reclaiming a majority in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow margin at the moment.
The battle over Akin has the potential to become a major sideshow at the Republican convention and to inject the issue of abortion front and center before a national TV audience. Republicans desperately want to keep the election narrative focused on jobs and the economy and what they argue is President Obama’s signature failure as leader, his inability to help the country recover from one of the worst recessions in memory.
Distractions over social issues like abortion tend to polarize undecided voters who otherwise might be tempted to give Romney a chance to run the economy for the next four years. And it might open up some cracks between the economic wing of the party and social conservatives who seem to have come to a kind of uneasy truce to fall in behind Romney as party leader. Romney has always had trouble convincing social conservatives he is one of them, thanks mostly to his days as a moderate governor of heavily Democratic Massachusetts.
Conventions Still Matter
They aren’t what they used to be, but the party nominating conventions still play an important role in the election process. They offer the party nominees an unfiltered opportunity to present their campaign message directly to the American people and they come at a time when many voters are just beginning to focus on the race for the White House. An estimated 40 million people watched four years ago as Barack Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin spoke at the party conventions.
They also give the parties a chance to present a unified vision of where they would like to take the country over the next four years and to highlight a younger generation of politicians auditioning for future leadership roles in the party.
Young Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton nominated Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention. Clinton’s droned on so long the delegates gave him mock applause when he uttered the words, “In conclusion…” But Clinton turned that around quickly when he made light of the reaction to his speech on comedy shows. Four years later he emerged from the pack as the Democratic nominee and eventual winner against then President George H. W. Bush.
Similarly in 2004, some Democrats were unsure about the choice of little known Illinois State Senator Barack Obama as convention keynote speaker. The rest, as we know, is history. This year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio are being highlighted at the Republican Convention as possible future stars in the making.
One more thing, a distracted or poorly run convention can be costly to presidential nominees, while a unified convention that projects well, especially to independent voters, can be an asset.
In 1992, Bill Clinton went into his convention trailing the incumbent, President George H. W. Bush. Clinton used the convention to reintroduce himself to the country as a moderate Democrat seeking to right the economic ship. In contrast, the Republican convention that nominated Mr. Bush for a second term got hijacked somewhat by divisive far-right rhetoric from the likes of Bush challenger Patrick Buchanan. The result was huge bump for Clinton coming out of his convention, while Bush and the Republicans got negative reviews coming out of theirs.
Conventions no longer select nominees like they once did, but they still matter. And what happens the next two weeks in Tampa and then in Charlotte, North Carolina where the Democrats meet, could easily have an impact in November on what is expected to be a very close election.