Friday, Aug. 31, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney faced a high bar as he officially accepted his party’s nomination Thursday.
In a half hour speech, he had to appeal to the varying factions that competed in the Republican primary fight, hopefully finding a string with which to unify them. He was tasked with reaching not only his party’s base, but independent voters and those who may be siding with his opponent but aren’t real happy about it.
Oh, yeah, and then there was the likability thing. How could he find a way to personally identify with voters, or give them a way to personally identify with him?
Whether he hurdled that bar will be decided by voters, but his 35-minute speech at least made inroads on each of those points.
Romney gave a shout out to the liberty-minded supporters of his former adversary Ron Paul by paying homage to the Constitution.
He paid his respect to women voters by acknowledging the strengths of his wife, his mother and the women he surrounded himself with both in government and business.
He sought to identify with the hardships of those who have lost their homes or jobs and have had to cope with increasing financial burdens — giving those individuals credit for plowing through the difficult times.
He spoke of his parents, his children and what drove him to succeed as a young man.
And he put forward his vision for the America he hopes to lead as president.
“That America, that united America, can unleash an economy that will put Americans back to work, that will once again lead the world with innovation and productivity, and that will restore every father and mother’s confidence that their children’s future is brighter even than the past,” he said. “That America is the best within each of us.”
The effort by the Romney campaign to improve his “likability factor” began the first night of the convention.
His wife, Ann Romney, first made the case for him on the opening night.
“Listen now, this is important,” Ann Romney said. “Mitt doesn’t like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point. And we’re no different than the millions of Americans who quietly help their neighbors, their churches and their communities.
“They don’t do it so that others will think more of them.”
Throughout the week, other speakers sprinkled their talks with anecdotes about Romney’s good deeds and personality.
That effort culminated Thursday night with a parade of friends, former parishioners and co-workers to tell stories of his compassion for their dying children, how he would help with the laundry and his decisive leadership at Bain Capital.
And in his speech, Romney sought to make that connection himself through stories of his family, soaring descriptions of his belief not just in the American dream but in individuals to achieve it and bits from his own life story.
“Those weren’t the easiest of days,” he said of when his family was young. “Too many long hours and weekends working, five young sons who seemed to have this need to re-enact a different world war every night.
“But if you ask Ann and I what we’d give, to break up just one more fight between the boys, or wake up in the morning and discover a pile of kids asleep in our room. Well, every mom and dad knows the answer to that.”
Romney’s campaign has relied heavily on others to give voters a glimpse of his personality.
“He’s a genuine guy,” said Robert Uithoven, a Republican consultant from Reno, who is not affiliated with the Romney campaign. “I’ve had an opportunity to be around Mitt Romney beyond just the campaign speeches and rallies. I was at a reception a few years ago and he was serving ice cream to the people who interned for him on his prior campaign. He couldn’t be more pleasant.
“A lot of people don’t get that kind of opportunity to see a presidential candidate that way.”
Still, part of a candidate’s job is to find a way to broadcast that likability factor that others see one-on-one to the electorate at large — a skill that has largely eluded Romney so far.
Not all candidates have former President Bill Clinton’s gift of connecting with individuals. But in recent history, candidates elected president have successfully incorporated their personal story into their campaigns, and found a way to identify with voters.
“It’s not the end all be all, but it is really important,” said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno. “And it is a big problem for Mitt Romney.”
Romney not only comes from a wealthy upbringing that stands in stark contrast with the economic suffering of many Americans right now, he also has a somewhat wooden demeanor on the stump, Herzik said.
But while the campaign has worked to personalize Romney, it is making a critical bet that voters will care more about competence than likability this year.
And, not to take anything for granted, the campaign will spend significant resources trying to persuade voters to care more about competence than likability — taking direct aim at one of President Barack Obama’s remaining strengths.
“In times when the economy is strong and confidence is high, likability is more important than when the economy is in trouble and confidence is down,” said Ryan Erwin, a Las Vegas political consultant who advises Romney’s Nevada campaign. “People have to trust their leader is beyond reproach and capable and can do the job right now. We have a president in office right now that doesn’t pass the threshold of success.”
A central theme of Romney’s campaign is to paint Obama as a man with soaring rhetoric — likable rhetoric even — but who is short on performance.
Romney took direct aim on that point with one key line in his speech, lancing Obama’s big ideas with an appeal to keep his focus on the individuals.
“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” Romney said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”
Herzik countered that it’s a difficult balance for the candidate to find between competence and likability.
“People want competent leadership, but they want the common man to run the country. Oh, and you better be better than me, but don’t flaunt that you’re better than me,” he said. “So you’ve got these contradictory impulses from the voter. But if you simply view the person as competent, but don’t like them, it makes it hard to vote for that person.”
Nevada's Republican National Convention
Romney’s supporters said they’re not after someone likable to be president.
“This isn’t a personality contest,” former Gov. Bob List said. “I think people realize America is better than an individual personality. We put a personality in (the White House) and he hasn’t done it.”
Nevada delegate Kim Bacchus said Thursday’s convention culmination went a long way toward personalizing Romney. But that isn’t necessarily the goal.
“This is who he is,” she said. “Likable? I think he is admirable. Is likable a requirement? I don’t feel that I have to go out and have a beer with the president of the United States.”
If the GOP primary season was a test of what kind of Republican the rank and file favor as a candidate, clearly the business Republican won.
The Tea Party’s Michele Bachmann failed to sustain traction, as did the social conservative Rick Santorum. The old-guard political insider and ideas man Newt Gingrich never mustered much traction at all.
Although Romney’s support largely held steady even as the popularity of his individual opponents spiked, he had a hard time finding a way to directly appeal to the base of the Republican Party. He had, perhaps, an even more difficult time explaining his previously moderate positions on such issues as abortion and immigration.
In that regard, he’s likely relieved to be speaking to the general electorate.
“That’s Mitt Romney’s sweet spot,” Uithoven said of independent, undecided and voters whose support for Obama is wobbly. “It’s not taking to the base. We all know that. Mitt Romney’s sweet spot is speaking to (those general election) voters.”
Indeed, the entire theme of the Republican National Convention has been to not only focus on Romney’s business acumen, but position him as a champion of business owners.
And that’s where those who support him see his ability to connect with people.
“He connects with people on the very basic idea that he believes in them,” Erwin said. “He believes that if you are willing to work hard, invest in a good education, you can chart your own course. It’s a key reason why voters will move to him.”
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.