What Mitt Romney Needs To Do in Tampa

The latest polls show his unfavorable rising, and he’s unlikely to pick a gamechanger as veep. Mark McKinnon on why Romney’s Tampa speech may make or break him.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Well, summer’s almost over, and the conventions are about to begin. Team Obama bet big that they would try and win the race early by spending fast and furiously and defining Mitt Romney in a way that would be irreparable.

And there is plenty of evidence that the Obama campaign has indeed been successful inflicting harm. Forty-nine percent of voters now view Romney unfavorably, while 40 percent view him in a favorable light. Over the course of the last year, his favorable ratings have improved by seven points, while unfavorable views have increased 18 points. Romney’s unfavorable views at this point are almost the same as George H.W. Bush’s were in 1988. The difference, and it’s an important one, is that 22 percent had yet to form an opinion of Bush, while only 11 percent feel they don’t know Romney today.

That’s potentially a big problem. Team Romney has been counting on outspending Obama heavily in the latter half of the campaign, and we can only assume he’s been holding back for the convention to reveal the contours of his biography, his personality and his plan for the future. The questions at this point are: (1) can Romney reshape opinions that have been hammered into the electorate over the summer? and (2) is there a “there there” to reveal at the convention?

Convention speeches are powerful tools to bend the curve of public opinion. George H. W. Bush’s 1988 convention speech is a great example. His son’s speech was also quite powerful. I remember driving with George W. from his hotel to the convention to deliver his speech. I was being quiet, trying to give him some space to get in the zone. Suddenly, I heard what I thought was the radio, and someone whistling the song, “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” Then I realized it was Governor Bush. Amazed, I asked, “Governor, you’re about to give the biggest speech of your life and you seem more relaxed than I’ve seen you in months.”

And he said, “I feel so confident about the speech revealing who I really am and what I believe in, that I will happily live with the verdict of the voters either way because they will know who I am, what I stand for and who they are voting for.”

The question is: does Romney have it in him to reveal, and is whatever he might reveal compelling? Of course it helps to have a Peggy Noonan or a Mike Gerson adding poetry and flourish to the words, but I believe they both would say they just helped translate vision and humanity that was already there.

I’ve been personally skeptical of Romney for a long time. To me, he has always seemed too mercenary. Like the time he accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement, saying, “You know, I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in. But I need to get 50.1 percent or more, and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”

There’s a long record of pandering and a complete absence of standing up to special interests.

But I haven’t closed the door completely on Romney. I suspect I’m like a lot of voters in the middle who are still waiting to see some signs of life, humanity, conviction, personality, biography, vision. Just show me more than the one-dimensional “I’m not Obama” campaign we’ve seen so far.

Joe Scarborough suggested a pretty good convention speech template: Tell us about the three M’s. Your Mormonism, the faith the drives you. Your money, how you made it and how it has shaped your life view of entrepreneurship. And Massachusetts—how you governed and why it made a difference in people’s lives. That would be a very good start. I would add a fourth M: Your mission as president, what you intend to do shape our country’s future and what your vision of the Republican party is that's different from the past.

The convention and Romney’s speech are his best chance. There are some early clues that the convention speakers will communicate a constellation of diversity. The main stage will be shared by the disparate likes of Jeb Bush, Condi Rice, Rand Paul, John McCain, Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. But the reality is that these days, with the exception of the VP pick and the nominee’s speech, the rest of the convention is just white noise. So, neither side is likely to gain much advantage on the general caliber of their conventions. The reality is, in this modern era, we’d be better off just scrapping them altogether, eliminating the cost and just letting the candidates do the only thing that matters: the speech.

It appears that Romney’s VP pick will be safe and do no harm. So, once again, we are down to the speech.

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The debates will be important. But absent a spectacularly defining convention speech, it may be too little, too late.

No pressure, Mitt. But your chances of winning the presidency may rest entirely on the ability to stand and deliver in Tampa.

Republicans shouldn’t lose heart. Mitt’s numbers may be bad. But, the last time a GOP nominee had numbers this bad was 1984. And we know how that turned out. But, then again, that was the Gipper.