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Romney's task in Tampa: Sell voters on himself, not just against Obama

TAMPA, Fla. – The task before Mitt Romney as he accepts his party’s presidential nomination this week in Florida is to convince the narrow segment of remaining undecided voters to boot President Obama from office, and then, decide on Romney as a suitable alternative.

This week’s Republican National Convention is one of three major opportunities – the other two being his selection of a running mate, and the presidential debates – Romney can count on to reach a large national audience. And for the former Massachusetts governor, that means changing perceptions about his personality and politics after a withering summer of attacks from the president’s re-election team and supportive super PACs.

Delegates look at an image of U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Mitt Romney displayed during the opening session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 27, 2012.
Delegates look at an image of U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Mitt Romney displayed during the opening session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 27, 2012.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Slideshow: Republican National Convention

“I think if the election were held tomorrow, Obama would win the election,” said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser in 2008 to that year’s GOP nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. “And in the balance of days left in this election, Romney has to change the dynamic of the election.”

Republicans will help Romney execute his game plan in a series of speeches and events throughout the week. Organizers hope to project the convention’s overall theme, “A Better Future,” in speeches and events spread across the convention’s abbreviated, three-day schedule. Republicans will weave the theme of Monday’s canceled session (“We Can Do Better”) into the three remaining days’ themes -- "We Built It," "We Can Change It," and "We Believe in America."

Those themes represent the tasks at hand. Republicans must convince voters that Obama hasn’t done well enough to merit re-election. But Romney will arrive in Tampa with some of the worst personal approval ratings of any presumptive Republican nominee; 44 percent of voters said in the August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they held a negative opinion of Romney, while 38 percent expressed a positive opinion.

For Romney, the convention is as much an exercise in re-introducing himself to voters and softening impressions as it is making the case against Obama.

"He needs to introduce himself to people. Even though he’s the nominee, he lost the summer pretty decisively," said Bob Shrum, the veteran Democratic presidential strategist.

Shrum said the Obama campaign, over the course of the summer, had efficiently "shattered the central rationale for Romney’s campaign, that he’s a businessman who knows how to create jobs."

To do that, Romney will lean on surrogates like former Olympic athletes, who will pay tribute to Romney’s successes as head of the 2002 Salt Lake City games. Other speakers will include members of Romney’s church, fellow Mormons who are expected to pay tribute to acts of charity undertaken by Romney, a former bishop in his faith.

Another closely watched-speech with potential to move the needle will be the Wednesday night speech by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan – whose selection represented Romney’s first major decision in the general election. The Republican running mate is expected to fete Romney, as well as make the case for entitlement reforms.

Modern conventions in both parties are carefully scripted to drive a message to a nationally televised audience, leaving for a narrow margin of error for speakers. The primetime lineup has been carefully selected, but the risk that a single speaker could veer off-message hangs over Tampa almost as much as the impending tropical storm.

“You’re supposed to vet the speeches, and you’ve selected the speakers,” said Republican operative Frank Donatelli, the head of GOPAC.

An impolitic remark could hijack news coverage away from the central messages of each night. The GOP is also hoping to avoid what happened in 1992, when several hard-charging speeches by conservatives were blamed for turning off swing voters from President George H.W. Bush’s re-election bid.

But most pivotal of all is Romney’s own acceptance speech, which will be nationally-televised address Thursday night.

Romney has said he’s begun drafting the speech, and appeared to join his wife, Ann, on Sunday in practicing their convention appearances. The Romneys headed to Brewster Academy, a prep school near their home in New Hampshire, for several hours on Sunday afternoon to practice their speeches.

But he’s overall been generally guarded about the contents of his and Ann’s speeches.

"I like my speech. I really like Ann's speech," he told reporters after a second day of practice on Monday morning.

The national spotlight for Romney will offer a personalizing opportunity for the former Massachusetts governor. But he’ll also have to explain his rationale for running, and make the case against a second term for Obama.

“He needs to bring definition to the race,” said Schmidt. “Why's he running for president? I think it's an unanswered question right now. “

A successful convention might mean a bounce for Romney; McCain led Obama in the immediate aftermath of both of their respective conventions in 2008. Republicans argue that advantage only diminished due to the financial crisis in the fall of that year.

This year, a different obstacle hangs over Romney’s bid to leave Tampa with more energy than Obama: next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.