Still waiting for Mitt to break out

Mitt Romney's official acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination put the old guard back in charge of the party. But can he boost his popularity beyond its base?

First there was a hurricane. Next there were the protesters who snuck into the arena. And then – at the last moment – Clint Eastwood.

When he finally took the stage to deliver his acceptance speech at the Republican party’s convention, Mitt Romney pressed his case that the US was worse off than four years ago, when Barack Obama won the White House.

At the moment of his coronation on Thursday night, however, Romney faced a different question – was he better off than he was four days ago, when delegates to the convention gathered in Tampa?

The slowly strengthening tropical storm that had turned into hurricane Isaac by the time it hit land forced a 24-hour delay of the convention and a last-minute scrambling of the agenda.

The Romney campaign, however, did not see Clint Eastwood coming. It was no wonder Ann Romney resembled a grim parent sitting through a crude wedding speech as the Hollywood star delivered his rambling, surreal introduction of her husband – Eastwood’s cameo was timed to kick off invaluable primetime television coverage of the event.

But few things throw the unflappable former business executive off course, and Romney carried off his speech with the kind of professional aplomb he has displayed through his business and political career.

As he has throughout the past year when faced with challenges, Romney did what he had to do, calmly prosecuting the task in front of him, neither sending the crowd into raptures nor putting them to sleep.

The speech contained sharp-elbowed, partisan attacks on Obama, couched mostly in the language of gentle disappointment and portraying him as anti-business and anti-success.

"You know there’s something wrong with the job he’s done as president if the best feeling you had is the day you voted for him,” he said. "America has been patient. But today, the time has come to turn the page.”

One of the biggest rounds of applause came when Romney mocked Obama for promising "to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet”. The candidate, who once professed belief in the science of climate change, concluded: "My promise is to help you and your family.”

His ability to execute, but not inspire, might still get him across the line on November 6. The two candidates remained locked in a statistical tie just over two months from election day, and Obama’s slight edge in pivotal swing states such as Florida seems to be eroding.

As the de facto leader of the Republicans, Romney is also finally managing to impose some discipline on an unruly party that has been run from the ground up since the Tea Party’s rise three years ago.

An establishment figure who has had to pander to the right, he has for the moment put the Republican old guard back in charge. Little was heard from the anti-Washington movement during the convention. When Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, refused to have his speech vetted, the Romney campaign took away his speaking spot.

"The whole thing that he was off to the side of the mainstream of the party – everyone seems to have forgotten that,” says Michael Barone, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, referring to Romney’s critics on the right of the party. "People are more enthusiastic about him now and that is a big deal.”

The fact that Romney is an awkward politician competing against potentially the most gifted performer in a generation is now brushed aside. "The dirty little secret is that he is not a good politician in a conventional sense,” says Ron Kaufman, a longtime close adviser. "But do you want a gregarious guy to be president? We just tried that style.”

However, doubts still linger on multiple fronts.

The audience listening to Romney’s speech did not need to read the party’s polling to grasp the two areas where the candidate badly needs to make up ground – with women and Hispanics.

During the convention, the campaign managed largely to silence talk of abortion, which had flared up in the weeks before when a Republican congressman campaigning for the Senate claimed women did not become pregnant as a result of "legitimate rape”.

The speaker’s list was peppered with women – including Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under president George W. Bush – and the party’s impressive up-and-coming Hispanic leaders, including Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, and Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico.

But the Hispanic outreach seems too little, too late, with Romney campaign officials acknowledging they have no new policies to offer on immigration. The result is that Romney will rely almost entirely on the votes of white people, especially blue-collar men, to win.

By the calculations of Ron Brownstein of the National Journal, a Washington publication, the Republican must win 61 per cent of all white voters, which would be a record, to offset Mr Obama’s overwhelming support among Hispanic and black people, and single, educated women. The need to appeal to such voters is colouring the campaign’s messaging, with a heavy focus on attacking welfare recipients – long considered code for targeting ethnic minorities.

The same holds in reverse for Obama. White people, especially working-class men, have deserted the president, leading to the fracturing of his message as he casts around for votes from multiple constituencies to cobble together a majority.

The ascendancy of the anti-immigration faction within the party brings big risks for Republicans. Whites have fallen as a portion of the electorate in every election since 1992, from about 90 per cent then to 74 per cent today. Meanwhile, in the same period, the ethnic minority population has grown – especially that of Hispanics, whose share of voters has increased from about 2-3 per cent to just over 10 per cent.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, told the Washington Post at the conference that the party was losing the "demographics race” badly. He added: "We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Then there is Romney himself, who continues to trail Obama on "likeability”, an important sentiment for Americans deciding who to choose as their president.

The convention attempted to flesh out the candidate’s biography with a slick biographical film, and speeches and appearances by Ann Romney, his wife of 46 years, as well as their five sons, who look as though they have been cloned from a catalogue of a perfect American family.

Romney also mentioned in public the "M” word – his Mormon religion – something he rarely does. A few hours before his speech, some of his fellow worshippers went into even greater detail about their shared faith and the candidate’s work as a lay bishop.

The result was one of the most personal and moving moments of an otherwise hard-driving political event.

One of the speakers, Pam Finlayson, recalled how Romney, as the lay bishop in a Massachusetts suburb, looked after her family when their daughter was born prematurely and placed in intensive care. She never fully recovered from the injuries she sustained as a baby and Finlayson said that when her daughter died last year at the age of 26, the Romneys were a comfort again.

"It seems to me when it comes to loving our neighbour, we can talk about it or we can live it,” she said. "The Romneys live it every single day.”

The Obama campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars seeking to define Romney in the minds of an American public that still does not feel it knows him. For the moment, that campaign seems to have hit its mark.

A Pew survey conducted before the convention recorded that 42 per cent of respondents held clearly negative views about Romney, with respondents labelling him with words such as "liar”, "arrogant” and "out of touch”. By contrast, about 28 per cent spoke of him in positive terms, as "honest” and "capable”.

In some respects, that represents progress for Romney. Sentiment was even more negative earlier in the year, when two words summed him up in the eyes of most respondents: "Mormon” and "rich”.

The convention, especially the final night, was meant to humanise Romney, to allow him to shed the image of the ruthless corporate raider that the Obama campaign has worked so assiduously to pin on him.

But speaking at a breakfast for the Pennsylvania delegation, Frank Lutz, a veteran Republican pollster, summed up what many fear, even though his remarks referred to Al Gore, who lost to Mr Bush in 2000.

"If you have to assert you are human,” he said, "there’s no way you are going to be elected.” Romney has just two months to prove him wrong.

Copyright the Financial Times 2012.

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