TAMPA — Mitt Romney and his party allies will swarm into Tampa this week for the Republican National Convention with a critical mission: steering the presidential campaign debate back toward the economy.
For the candidate who is close to President Obama in national polls but trailing on almost every analyst’s electoral college map, the stakes could not be higher.
“If the election were held tomorrow, Obama would be reelected,” said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “At some point in the next two months, Romney has to pass him and seal the deal.”
“This is his only opportunity to speak to 40 million Americans without rebuttal,” Schmidt added, referring to Romney’s televised speech Thursday, when he will accept the party’s presidential nomination. “He needs to define who he is, define the country’s problems, and offer a vision and a plan for how to deal with them.”
Disruptions continued Sunday, as the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac, which is expected to build to hurricane strength in the Gulf of Mexico, forced the cancellation of Monday’s session of the convention. If things go according to Romney’s plan with the delayed start after Tuesday, talk of abortion and other distractions will quickly yield to talk of the economy.
“Look to Tampa,” Romney said Saturday in the second of his new, weekly podcasts. “Two days from now, leaders from all across the country will gather to show Americans that help is on the way. For that father whose heart cries out for the dignity of work, for that child who needs a stable home, for that midcareer worker who just wants another chance, a better America can be more than just a hope. It can be our future.”
The 3-minute podcast, which focused exclusively on the economy, marked a return to Romney’s core message, which he has deviated from in recent weeks. In late July, Romney emphasized foreign policy during a six-day trek to England, Israel, and Poland.
Back on American soil, Romney launched a series of attack ads accusing Obama of “gutting” welfare reform by waiving the work requirement on people who receive benefits. Independent fact checkers have found the ads misrepresented the administration’s action, which offered waivers to state governments that pledged to increase their rates of workforce reintroduction by 20 percent.
On Aug. 11, Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, touching off a week of debate about the Wisconsin representative’s plan to overhaul Medicare by introducing a voucher program in 2023.
Then remarks by Missouri Representative Todd Akin about rape and abortion last Sunday pushed those highly charged topics to the fore.
After a week of intense scrutiny on the party’s position on abortion — an issue that will be revived yet again at the convention, where the GOP platform will be voted on — supporters of the former Massachusetts governor say shifting the public’s focus to Obama’s economic stewardship is imperative.
“Romney had a very effective spring talking about the economy, but he’s been on defense over the summer more than he’s been on offense,” Schmidt said. “The Obama campaign has done a good job of defining the public image of Romney, but now he’ll be able to control the show . . . at the convention.”
Former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, said that while the campaign has been underway for more than a year and a half, the convention will signal a new start for many Americans who have paid only limited attention to the race.
With that reality in mind, Sununu said, Romney will get back to basics and talk about “Obama’s disastrous economy,” not only in his convention speech but also in the deluge of ads he will air between Labor Day and Election Day, when Romney can exploit the $62 million cash advantage he holds over Obama.
“We need to keep our focus, and we will,’’ said Tom Rath, a Romney advisor from New Hampshire. “As long as that is the central theme . . . that tilts the agenda in our direction. That is the direction that Americans want in this election. That is the economic angst that is driving this election.’’
Imposing a disciplined message on the convention may not be easy.
Fissures in the Republican Party widened last week after leaders, including Romney, suggested that Akin, the GOP Senate candidate in Missouri, should quit the race because of controversial statements he made about the ability of a woman’s body, as he described it, to avoid a pregnancy stemming from “legitimate rape.’’
Tea Party activists will be playing a significant role, with rallies Sunday, putting a more conservative spin on the proceedings than the Romney campaign may prefer.
Romney himself strayed off message again just two days ago, when he made a joking allusion to discredited allegations among some Republicans that Obama was born outside the United States, and is thus ineligible to be president.
Democrats are doing everything they can to keep the distractions alive and throw Romney and Ryan off balance, highlighting the more conservative elements of the party.
Those conservative elements were on full display last week, as the Republican platform committee met here and crafted what committee cochair Marsha Blackburn, a member of Congress from Tennessee, touted as “the most conservative platform we’ve ever had.”
The draft platform, which has not been released in full, includes language calling for a human life amendment to the Constitution that would effectively ban all abortions, without exceptions for rape, incest, or danger to a pregnant woman’s health. The strict proposal, which will be considered by the convention’s 2,286 delegates, could be a source of division at an event designed to project party unity.
Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown has written a letter to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, calling the abortion plank “a mistake because it fails to recognize the views of prochoice Republicans like myself.”
“Social issues have no role in political platforms,” Jayme Stevenson, the first selectwoman of Darien, Conn., and a delegate from that state, told the Hartford Courant on Friday.
Even Romney has refused to embrace the proposed no-exceptions ban on abortion — though he said in 2007 that he supported identical language in earlier GOP platforms. Romney said as recently as last fall, during an interview with Mike Huckabee on Fox News, that it would be “wonderful if everyone in the country agreed with you and me that life begins at conception.”
Obama’s campaign has used statements like that to assert in TV ads that Romney opposes abortion “even in cases of rape and incest.”
On Saturday, in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Romney said it was “disappointing” that Democrats are misrepresenting his position on abortion.
“My own view is that I oppose abortion except for cases of rape, incest, and where the life of the mother is threatened,” Romney said.
“But that’s my view on abortion,” he added, “and people who are distorting [it] for their political purposes, I think, are making a very unfortunate turn on an issue that’s very sensitive and where people in good faith can come out in different places.”
Romney’s position on abortion has changed over the years. As a candidate for Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002, he pledged not to oppose abortion rights. But in 2005, midway through his term on Beacon Hill, Romney became a vocal opponent of abortion.
But the fact that political coverage has focused lately on abortion — instead of the economy — should not alarm the Romney campaign, Sununu said.
“In basketball, all that matters is the last two minutes,” Sununu said. “In presidential politics, it’s these last two months.”