Mitt Romney will try to convince tens of thousands of voters tonight that it’s OK to change their minds.
The 65-year old former governor, now officially the Republican nominee for president, will address his party’s convention and the nation in a prime-time speech — an address everyone agrees will be the most significant Romney has ever delivered.
The speech comes at the end of a convention Republicans said has met or exceeded their expectations, despite bad weather and security headaches. They think Ann Romney’s speech earned votes from young married women, probably the largest part of the minuscule pool of truly undecided voters. And speeches from vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie helped lock up fiscal and social conservatives, the bedrock of the GOP.
But it probably isn’t enough. On Wednesday, Romney still trailed President Barack Obama by an oh-so-narrow margin, about 1 percent in the latest Real Clear Politics poll average.
Even though that’s well within the margin of error, Romney hasn’t led in that polling average for almost a year, a consistent indication he’s behind in the race. Republicans suspect that’s because a small, but crucial, sliver of 2008 Obama voters is disappointed enough to vote for someone else, but isn’t convinced Romney is an acceptable alternative.
It’s Romney’s job, starting tonight, to get those voters to make that decision.
“This has become a choice election instead of just a referendum on Obama,” said Kansas City GOP consultant Jeff Roe, who is in Tampa. Roe added that some Obama supporters “don’t like the president, but they’re waiting to decide on Mitt Romney ... The campaign’s play is to convince them Romney is up to the job.”
The first part of that effort is evident in campaign commercials in battleground states, including Florida. The ads feature 2008 Obama voters explaining their changes of heart, and that it’s “OK” for other voters to make a similar decision, to change their minds.
The push escalated this week in Tampa. Personal attacks on Obama have been limited — the “socialist” signs and Obama-as-the-Joker posters are virtually non-existent, Roe noted — so that voters who still admire the president as a person aren’t scared away.
Instead, the argument is this: Romney is a successful businessman, a turnaround specialist who can save the economy, but not a captive of his party’s most extreme right wing.
“(Romney’s) got a track record of doing things the right way,” said Missouri state Sen. Tom Dempsey. “He’s got to let the country see some of that (tonight).”
Romney has campaigned relentlessly this summer on the alleged failures of the Obama administration when it comes to creating jobs, lowering unemployment and reducing government spending, attacks that are expected again tonight.
“He is not going to flinch from assigning responsibility to the president, where that responsibility’s deserved,” said former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, a Romney adviser.
Although Romney hasn’t yet offered a specific plan that addresses broad federal budget problems, Democrats insist Romney’s pick of Ryan implies an endorsement of the congressman’s detailed budget blueprint.
But Romney has made some concrete promises: Repealing the Affordable Care Act, reducing tax rates across the board, cutting unspecified government spending while protecting national defense and Medicare, and reducing the deficit.
Yet most independent experts have concluded the promises don’t add up — unless jobs and economic growth explode. So some Republicans expect Romney to provide more details about job creation tonight.
“I think he needs to show resolve to get the country moving again economically, and create an environment where private sector jobs are the result,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.
Barb Paulus, a Kansas GOP delegate, agreed. “I think he’s coming around to the viewpoint of a majority of Republicans, which is that we’ve got a fiscal crisis and we need to focus on that,” she said.
Other Republicans, however, said they hoped Romney would mix his economic message with a more personal story. They think one reason persuadable voters are still hesitant is a lack of a “connection” with the candidate.
Romney is expected to talk about his Mormon faith tonight. The campaign has avoided an extended conversation on Romney’s religion, some Republicans have noted, perhaps because it’s afraid of scaring away committed Christian voters in some states.
“So many people have yet to see the personal Mitt Romney,” said Eric Zahnd, a Missouri Republican delegate and Platte County’s prosecutor. “I don’t buy this idea that he’s a plastic candidate ... I think sometimes Mitt, because he is very prepared, very professional, sometimes doesn’t let that (personality) show through.”
That personality is expected to be on full display this evening, in videos, speeches from other Republicans, and camera shots of his extended family.
Some Republicans maintain that a combined message of economic growth and personal warmth can help dispel the view of Romney as a heartless business tycoon, an image the Obama campaign and its surrogates have worked tirelessly to emphasize this summer.
For some persuadable voters, that image has stuck, Republicans conceded. It’s Romney’s task, often difficult in politics, to reset the discussion and move wobbly Obama supporters to his side.
If he can do that, they argued, he’ll be the next president.
“Most of the people in the room want to be inspired and see again the greatness that is America,” said Kansas GOP Chairwoman Amanda Adkins. “They’re looking for leadership and that proven success story that can help the country continue to rebound.”
Talent, who may be in line for a Cabinet job in a Romney administration, expects an optimistic approach tonight.
“He did call his book ‘No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,’ ” Talent pointed out. “Not survival, greatness. And he really thinks that. And he’s going to talk about that in some specificity.
“America gets its arms around new leaders gradually,” he added. “Governor Romney is a new leader. He’s not introducing himself, but every big speech he gives now, voters are gaining a depth of understanding of the man.”