WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s campaign hopes to combat months of attacks from Democrats and his GOP primary rivals by emphasizing a highly personalized “counter-
narrative” at next week’s Republican convention that aides said will highlight the presumptive nominee’s charitable work, his religious life, and his job-creation record.
A key element of Romney’s strategy is to have testimony from an array of people he has helped throughout his life, including disadvantaged people he worked with as a Mormon leader in Boston, Olympic athletes familiar from his management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and others who have direct experience with the candidate.
“They’ll have people from my dad’s life who get up and talk about who he is and what he did, and talk about ways he helped them,” said Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, who helped compile the list of potential speakers from his father’s past.
Romney’s advisers announced details of their strategy in a conference call with reporters on Friday, including how the campaign’s themes will be displayed on television screens in the convention hall. But the campaign expressed frustration that television networks do not plan to air live convention coverage on Monday and have agreed only to one hour each on the following three nights. That makes it unlikely the traditional campaign video will be seen by most viewers unless they tune in to cable channels that show it.
The convention will be a highly scripted affair, with themes prescribed for each evening. Monday night will be “We Can Do Better,” with speakers highlighting what they view as the failure of the Obama administration. Tuesday night will be “We Built It.” Wednesday night’s theme will be “We Can Change it,” with a focus on some of the policies and positions that Romney has highlighted in his campaign. The final night, when Romney will speak, is “We Believe in America.”
The plans for a more personal touch reflect an acknowledgment that Romney needs to rebrand his image after the pounding he took in the primaries. Thanks in part to his Republican primary opponents, a largely negative narrative has dominated Romney’s campaign, portraying him as a super-wealthy, heartless “vulture” capitalist uncomfortable talking about his personal and religious life and struggling to connect with average Americans.
The result: Romney is entering the convention with an unusually low favorability rating for a Republican candidate about to be nominated for the first time to the presidency. According to a poll released last week by NBC News, 38 percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of Romney; 44 percent had an unfavorable opinion. For comparison, George W. Bush had an favorable rating of 45 percent and an unfavorable rating of 30 percent in June 2000, according to Public Opinion Strategies, one of the firms that conducted the NBC poll. Senator John McCain had a favorable rating of 39 percent and an unfavorable mark of 34 percent in June 2008.
The effort to remake Romney’s image is in line with the controversial remark of his adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, who said in March that after the primaries the remainder of the campaign can be reshaped like an Etch A Sketch, the children’s toy in which shapes on the device are drawn, shaken, and redrawn.
It also follows a long line of efforts to burnish a candidates’ image. Ronald Reagan remade his campaign by declaring that it was “morning in America.” George H.W. Bush rebutted charges that he was a “wimp” by showing footage of his World War II rescue. Bill Clinton redrew his image with a convention film that portrayed him as a humble man from Hope, Ark.
But few candidates have faced a bigger rebranding challenge than Romney, whose strategy relies in part on his willingness to stray from his comfort zone. For much of the campaign, Romney has refrained from delving too much into his personal side, particularly his Mormon faith. While Romney is not expected to discuss his faith’s tenets, he has invited people who received assistance from the church at the time he was the leader of the Boston stake, which includes a number of Mormon churches from the region. A campaign official said Friday that the names of those speakers would be released next week.
Romney strategist Russ Schriefer said in the conference call that the speakers will include “someone who followed Governor Romney as a leader in the church, who will talk about what it was like to fill Governor Romney’s shoes in that role.”
Tagg Romney said separately that putting his father’s faith on display should help voters recognize the father he knows. “He’s going to be who he is and his faith is part of who he is,’’ Tagg Romney said. “I think he’ll talk about the values he’s learned from his faith.”
The campaign, after reinforcing its conservative credentials with the selection of Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as the running mate, hopes to reach out to key groups it needs to win in swing states. Although Romney is well ahead among white men and rural voters, he trails President Obama among women, Hispanics, and those under 35 years old. Independents are also a key target because they may only now be getting engaged in the campaign; they might have heard some criticism and caricature of Romney and may be open to hearing another side of the story.
“This is about humanizing the candidate more than anything else, making him real and three-dimensional,” said Allan Louden, a Wake Forest university professor who has studied the use of convention films and candidate image-making. He said a campaign video, for example, can provide “a block of time in which they can invent, reinvent, and reinforce their particular narrative, their story, which is really their case for election.”
The campaign also hopes to undo damage from attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital. Romney previewed this strategy in a Friday op-ed column published in The Wall Street Journal titled “What I Learned at Bain Capital.” It highlighted his early investment at Staples, which he called “one of many businesses we helped create and expand.” Staples was a relatively small and early venture capital deal, in which Bain invested $2.5 million and got a $13 million return. Most of Romney’s most profitable deals were leveraged buyouts of existing companies, which had a mixed record of gaining and losing jobs and had been criticized by some primary opponents.
The campaign is also still working to heal some rifts from the primary campaign. Romney advisers have agreed to let Ron Paul supporters air a tribute video for the Texas congressman on Tuesday night, an olive branch that comes after Paul supporters spent months organizing at state and local party conventions, in some cases because they are still distrustful of Romney.
In the end, Romney’s campaign hopes that the combination of a more personal story and an explanation at the convention of his church leadership and business dealings will improve perceptions about Romney.
“I think for most people, they’ll be tuning in for the first time,” Tagg Romney said. “This is really one of your only chances to give an impression to people of who he is that’s not in a 30-second advertising sound bite. I am very confident that as people get to know my dad, they’ll say, ‘Wow this is a genuinely good person who is running because he wants to help the country.’ ”