Mitt Romney strode into the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the start of the Republican convention on Tuesday night as perhaps the least-known presidential nominee in recent history. Everything from his religion - barely spoken about on the campaign trail - to his business career - the subject of intense disagreements - translated as opaque. His looks and bearing registered as presidential, but there was precious little to fill out the suit.
But by the time Romney took the stage for the first time, later in the evening, his profile had begun to come into greater focus. And he had his wife of 43 years to thank for it.
“No one will work harder. No one will care more,” declared Ann Romney. And it came off as true, mainly because she said it. The ostensible subject of Ann Romney’s speech was her husband’s strength, but what it revealed was her own. Viewed by some in Massachusetts as a reluctant political partner, and perhaps a bit of a wallflower, Ann Romney clearly has grown in the spotlight.
“It’s the mom who has to work a little harder to make it right,” she said at one point, and mothers and grandmothers watching on TV surely nodded in recognition. And they began to see the Romneys as a little less privileged, a little more hard-working, and a lot more in touch with everyday values than they had previously believed.
Campaigns realized a few decades ago that having the candidate’s spouse deliver a convention speech was an unmitigated plus - even a halting speech will be forgiven if it comes from the heart. But Ann Romney far exceeded those expectations. It’s safe to say that hers was the best convention speech by any candidate’s spouse - and certainly the most important.
Ann Romney was so good that the opera was effectively over before the fat man sang. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who delivered the official “keynote” address immediately after Ann Romney, wasn’t as likable, or as crucial to the campaign. But he was able to rouse the crowd, and to drive home the Republicans’ most crucial - but also quite dubious - claim: The budget deficit is “strangling” the economy.
In fact, the long-term deficit is a serious problem, but none of the pain being felt by the millions of Americans featured in the anecdotes offered by Christie and Ann Romney is because of the deficit. Long-term deficits, when let out of control, drive up the cost of borrowing, but that, thankfully, remains a future worry.
Instead, the austerity plan invoked by Christie in New Jersey - the product of the budget cuts that he made and that Romney promises for the country - has helped drive up unemployment in New Jersey to 9.8 percent, a point and a half higher than the national average.
Christie’s was a fraudulent argument - but still represents a crucial link in the larger Republican claim that President Obama has choked off the economy by driving up the national debt. By hammering his point home, Christie probably helped Romney’s cause - but not nearly as much as his wife did.