Rupert Cornwell: The thrill of 2008 is dead and I can see Mitt Romney in the White House

The gauche Nixon was elected. Twice. There’s no prohibitive reason Romney can’t do the same

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He really did pretty well. Mitt Romney is never going to set the world alight with a speech. A reserved and private man, he's always going to be uncomfortable talking about himself. He's never been good at "connecting". He rarely does empathy, at least not in public. For Romney, if only 2012 had been 1864 when, in the middle of a civil war, Abraham Lincoln could accept the Republican party's nomination with a 216-word letter ending with "your obedient servant".

But modern conventions and modern elections don't work like that. The candidate has to bare his soul (though not, so far, his tax records). He has to construct a personal "narrative" to show he is a regular human. He must produce some rousing oratory and indelible phrases, something else Romney is not very good at. But in Tampa, he tried. They even rebuilt the podium the night before with steps down on to the floor, bringing him closer to the audience so that he could indeed better connect. In the event, as acceptance speeches go, his was a pretty pedestrian effort. But expectations beforehand were mercifully low.

And politics is about more than packaging, "humanising" the candidate and waiting for the theatre reviews to come in. Mine, for what it's worth, is that on Thursday night, Mitt Romney was Mitt Romney, competent but wooden. For about the first time he uttered the "M-word" – Mormon – on a public stage, and even managed a joke about it. As usual, though, he never looked totally relaxed. But does it matter? Compared with the gauche and awkward Richard Nixon, for instance, Romney is a combination of JFK and Demosthenes. Nixon, though, was elected president. Twice. There's no prohibitive reason Romney can't do the same.

Above all, don't forget the dynamic of this election. Most people have long since basically made up their minds, and Romney was aiming at the 5 or 10 per cent at most of undecideds. For them, this is a contest between an incumbent who has disappointed but whom they still like personally, and a competent, rather uninspiring challenger with some interesting ideas but who's still a bit of a mystery. Everything depends on whether this group is ready to give Obama a second chance: whether they believe he was dealt such a tough hand in January 2009 that no earthly mortal could have put things right in the time available.

Look at it from this perspective, and Romney did pretty well in Tampa. Neither he (nor running mate Paul Ryan who, for me, was the real star of the week) went after Obama with crude frontal attacks. They didn't deliver tirades that might have offended people who like Obama the man, despite the dismal economy. "More in sorrow than anger" was the tone. "I wish President Obama had succeeded, because I want America to succeed," Romney declared. Crocodile tears – but a recognition of America's disillusioned mood of 2012.

When a president is seeking a second term, it is said, an election is essentially a referendum on the incumbent. Less so this time. Republicans must present the 2012 election not as a referendum, but a choice between alternatives. As Ryan put it the night before, without change at the top, "why should the next four years be any different from the last four years?"

So Romney presented himself as a practical man of action vs well-meaning but ineffectual dreamer. Reaganesque, he asked Americans if they were better off than four years ago. Obama had entered office with an "apology tour"; he would begin with a jobs tour. Obama had promised "to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise... is to help you and your family."

And he even came up with a "five-point plan" – actually, not a plan, rather a set of targets: 12 million new jobs, school choice, energy self-sufficiency by 2020, a federal budget on track to balance, and help for small business. Boilerplate Republican stuff to be sure, but it sounded different. Convention acceptance speeches are no place for fine print.

As for "humanising" himself, he made progress on that score as well. Republicans know full well that no new Ronald Reagan is in their midst, many continue to doubt his conservative bona fides. But Romney at least lifted some veils. He spoke about his Mormonism, and also about Bain Capital, the private equity group where he made his fortune, and which is exhibit A in Team Obama's take-down of him. "We weren't always successful at Bain," he admitted, but "no one ever is in the real world of business" of which Obama knew nothing.

The success of the speech will be measured not in decibels of applause, but in what happens to his polling negatives. Hitherto, Americans have had scant idea of who Mitt Romney is; what idea they did have was mainly provided by the Obama campaign, depicting him as a callous tax-dodging vulture capitalist, a child of privilege out of touch with ordinary people. That's why Romney's personal unpopularity ratings have been at 50 per cent or more, a record for a major party candidate at this stage of a campaign. But now Romney has begun to paint a self-portrait. Expect those negatives to start falling, and the traditional post-convention "bounce" to kick in.

With so few voters open to changing their minds, the bounce probably won't be large. But it needn't be. The final weeks of the campaign are likely to be brutish and dispiriting. Both sides will play fast and loose with the facts. Expect no uplifting happy talk. As I said, an incumbent who has disappointed faces a challenger who does not inspire. Right now Obama and Romney are in a dead heat nationally, although the President has a tiny lead in most of the eight or nine swing states that will determine the outcome.

Even with Bill Clinton in prominent attendance, Obama is unlikely to move the needle much at next week's Democratic convention in Charlotte. The thrill of 2008 is gone; the jobless rate is at a level where no incumbent has been re-elected since FDR during the Great Depression. To win, this President must pray that Americans still place most of the blame for the country's current woes on George W Bush. If Romney emerges from the convention phase of the campaign with a net gain of a couple of points, survives the three presidential debates and hangs on to that edge until November, that will suffice. And Mitt Romney, stilted and rather boring, personally still something of an enigma, will find himself the 45th President of the United States.

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