TAMPA — Condoleezza Rice radiated charisma, Ann Romney exuded warmth, and Paul Ryan brought his Wisconsin-bred polite pugnacity. But in the end, it was Mitt Romney who capped the Republicans’ big week with a message that carried an unlikely echo of the very president he is trying to unseat.
On the final night of a slimmed-down and at times uneven Republican National Convention, Romney used his long-awaited address to call for national unity and conciliation, to “restore the promise of America.” He used somewhat gentler rebukes of President Obama — more disappointed father than angry uncle — as he pleaded with his party and his country to transfer to him the mantle of hope and change.
It was a shrewd tack, and a more presidential one, performed with the recognition that many Americans are still just forming first impressions of a man who has remained, in the public imagination, something of a riddle.
“That America, that united America” became a refrain, as Romney called for shared purpose — toward putting people back to work, caring for the poor and the sick, and preserving US military strength. In spirit, at times, it evoked Obama’s legendary lament at the 2004 Democratic National Convention about the red state-blue state divide.
Despite the harsh attacks that he, his campaign, and their Republican surrogates have leveled against Obama’s presidency this week, Thursday night was Romney’s moment to rise above all that, to appear, at least for a brief moment, high-minded and more personable. Fleeting or not, it was an approach that surely held appeal well beyond the partisan confines of the Tampa convention hall, even if the speech lacked the soaring rhetoric or cogency of the week’s best performers.
Romney had two key challenges coming into the convention. He had to make voters confident in his ability to fix the economy, but also comfortable with him as a potential president. He has, though, been famously stingy in talking about himself. His campaign book, “No Apology,” is so spare on personal details that he began the first chapter with these words: “I hate to weed.”
Whether he accomplished all he needed to remains an open question. But one of the most important tasks of the past few days — fleshing out who Mitt Romney is, and where he comes from — he achieved to a degree Thursday by revealing some emotion in talking about his five boys and by letting friends and supporters speak to his character.
Party leaders and TV viewers heard uplifting (and selectively chosen) stories about companies helped by Bain Capital. They heard of the loyalty he inspires among those close to him. They heard of his managerial aplomb as governor. But most notably they heard testimonials about his long and committed service within the Mormon church.
In perhaps the moving moment of the convention, a former Massachusetts couple, Pat and Ted Oparowski, told a hushed audience how Romney, in his role as a lay church leader, had ministered to their family when their 14-year-old son, David, was dying of cancer. One day, David asked Romney, a Harvard Law School graduate, to help him make a will, something no teenager should ever have to do.
“How many men do you know would take the time out of their busy lives to visit a terminally ill 14-year-old and help him settle his affairs?” Pat Oparowski asked.
The inclusion of the Oparowskis, along with other Mormons, in the program was, as envisioned by the campaign, an adroit way of addressing the centrality of Romney’s Mormon faith without delving into specific tenets. It was a shift for a man who has been highly resistant to sharing much publicly about his religion and its place in his life. Romney’s unremarkable utterance Thursday about his upbringing — “We were Mormons” — was remarkable in that he said it at all.
With Republicans worried about turning off women voters, Romney also made a fairly explicit pitch for their support. He invoked his mother, Lenore, and her groundbreaking, though ultimately unsuccessful, 1970 campaign for US Senate in Michigan. He paid tribute to the lineup of women convention speakers. And he ticked off a tally of women he appointed to senior positions as governor.
Republicans now head into the final two months of the presidential campaign professing enthusiasm and optimism about their chances this November.
“This has been a tremendous convention,” former senator Mel Martinez of Florida said prior to Romney’s speech.
Still, Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said Romney is unlikely to receive a sustainable polling bounce from the convention. Plus, any bump is likely to be countered by Obama’s gain from his own convention.
Whatever the impact of Romney’s words, his acceptance speech marked another milestone: He is now free to start spending the tens of millions he has raised for the general election. He is expected to use much of the money in perhaps 10 swing states where the campaign is likely to be decided. After leaving Florida Friday, he plans stops in Virginia and Ohio, then a return to Florida on Saturday.
There have been plenty of distractions this week — Hurricane Isaac, the insurgency of Ron Paul supporters, the Republicans’ adoption of a rigidly conservative platform. But Romney pushed past all that Thursday, reaching the podium to say the words he’s long wanted to say: “I accept your nomination for president of the United States.”Scott Helman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org