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Brian McGrory

Mitt Romney is no washout

It is shocking that Hurricane Isaac wasn’t pushed back out to sea by all the hot air coming from the glamour capital that is Tampa, where too many thousands of cable TV bloviators, political prognosticators, and various know-it-alls are reciting the convention(al) wisdom that Mitt Romney will deliver a disastrously underwhelming acceptance speech Thursday night.

Don’t believe them, any of them, all these people who think in herds and dine together on $73 cuts of beef at Bern’s Steak House and swoon over the likes of Eric Fehrnstrom.

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They are also the most gullible group since the GOP Convention Selection Committee believed that line about hurricanes rarely hitting the Gulf in late August.

There are just two basic things to understand about this convention. The first is that Isaac is driving Romney even crazier than Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum ever did. Romney is a man who likes to control even the most seemingly inconsequential situations. This past year has seen him raked by his dimwit opponents and derided by the political establishment. Even in his victories, he has controlled almost nothing.

Conehead, empty suit, Stepford candidate — you name it, he’s been called it, and that’s often within his own party. In the last few weeks, he’s heard or read a million words about his lack of likability, to the point that he’s had to shrug and deliver the characteristically canned line, “I am who I am.”

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But this was the week that would put him back in control. Conventions are scripted down to the syllable. The candidate and his team decide who sits where and speaks when and says what, Romney in all his glory.

And then Isaac, and cancellations, and the threat of the oft-cited split screen imagery of a happy convention set against a city, New Orleans, visited by disaster all over again. He’s a tough guy to pity, though sometimes it’s all there is.

But amid so much negativity and uncertainty, friends and foes should count Romney out at their own peril, which is the second point. The torrent of criticism from the chattering masses wildly misses the mark. Likability isn’t really Romney’s problem; empathy is, and he is surprisingly well equipped to overcome this.

Let’s stipulate that Romney is profoundly mediocre with strangers. He works campaign events robotically, always moving, never listening. In person, he feels nobody’s pain. In unscripted forums, his sentences collide, and he has an odd knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Remember London. Or Israel. Or that bakery in Pennsylvania.

Against this backdrop, he has an important attribute for which he is rarely given credit. He is an uncommonly thoughtful human being, wise in the ways of the world, even if earnestly so. He is neither mean-spirited nor venal, never one to score cheap political points at someone else’s expense. And while he lacks one-on-one empathy, he has been empathic in a more cosmic sense.

To wit, in four years as governor, he did surprisingly little harm to the safety net, and actually strengthened it with universal health care. He once reversed cuts to homeless programs in Massachusetts after it was pointed out that he had broken an earlier promise to leave those funds alone. I’ve listened to him on the phone deliver a pitch-perfect, off-the-cuff analysis of life and death. I’ve been around politicians all my adult life, and it showed a depth of thought I had rarely heard.

And there’s something else to remember, something important on this day. When he’s in control, in his element, he can deliver a speech far more thoughtful than just about anyone else. Remember the opening ceremony of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and a 3-minute, post-Sept. 11 address in which he said that athletes inspire the world not only with their achievement, but with their ambition.

Romney’s weaknesses are as legion as they are maddening, and there’s little he can do to change at this point in his life.

But amid those faults are overlooked strengths. He is who he is. Be prepared to be surprised on Thursday night.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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