In between convention speeches, Republican delegates swarmed the corridors of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, buying soft pretzels and hot dogs, and lingering in a converted sports shop now dubbed the Romney-Ryan Store. Like the GOP ticket itself, the commemorative memorabilia on sale was, on the convention’s first day, more of a curiosity than a source of excitement.
Convention-goers fingered mugs with the distinctive three-toned “R” of the Romney campaign and flipped through racks of T-shirts imprinted with a black-and-white photo of Mitt and Paul, standing beside each other as if poised for action, the business-casual version of Batman and Robin.
Many of these delegates had just, moments earlier, crowded around microphones under their home-state banners and voted for Romney, while a local party elder recited their state motto, tree, and most beloved political ancestor. And yet, it was clear, the GOP will never truly belong to Mitt Romney. He’s not the host in Tampa, but the guest. Still, if the opening days of the 2012 convention have determined anything, it’s how much his party needs him.
After almost a year of feeling the need to prove himself to party conservatives, culminating in his selection of budget-cutting hero Ryan as his running mate, Romney suddenly holds all the cards. The chaotic collection of interests known as today’s GOP has only one vehicle for reclaiming the White House. And they’re lucky to have him.
Only someone like the Mormon Romney, who generally eschews talk of religion in favor of hyping his church-like faith in American values, could carry the flag of the religious right into battle without offending those without traditional families and faiths, as Rick Santorum did in his cranky culture-war address extolling “married moms and dads.”
Only someone like Romney the businessman, with his coolly understated, Yankee-like air of competence, can attempt to sell a package of additional tax cuts, while pledging to cut the deficit, without sounding like a fool or a crank, as his primary opponents from Herman Cain to Rick Perry to Newt Gingrich so often did.
Only someone like Romney, with his chiseled looks and aristocratic bearing, could attempt to throw the blame on Barack Obama for dividing the country without looking like a craven hypocrite, as John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the congressional Republicans do.
Romney was always the most plausible nominee for the Republicans — the default choice, the only viable figure — as far back as December in Iowa. But even as they pulled the election levers for him, many Republicans weren’t completely sure why. Now it’s becoming clearer.
“When it comes to the economy and jobs-jobs-jobs, then people will identify with him,” declared Jim McErlane, a delegate from Pennsylvania’s Chester County. “He’s not a personality guy, a charm guy, like Reagan or Clinton. He’s a guy who gets things done.”
Bernie O’Neill, another Pennsylvania delegate, said the question shouldn’t be whether Romney’s a perfect match for the Republicans in Tampa, but “whether he’s a perfect fit for America right now, and the answer is yes.”
So Romney, the career business consultant, has been hired. He’s taken on a daunting case, representing a party whose brand is in flux, and whose ownership structure isn’t clear.
In stark contrast to the diverse parade of speakers on the podium, which on Tuesday included a Tea Party Hispanic, a ’90s-era TV actress, and a black Mormon congressional candidate from Utah, the GOPers crowding into the Tampa Bay Times Forum are disproportionately white and male, and far younger than the weathered, Grant Wood-like faces that tended to pop up in TV reaction shots. The young men carry an air of purpose, as they flash their badges and receive admission to the suites and boxes ringing the convention floor.
The precise agenda of the Republicans may be opaque, but their desire to win is evident. And they think they have the man to deliver.
Peter S. Canellos is editorial page editor of The Globe.