Rupert Cornwell: Time for Romney to show if he's got what it takes

Out of America: This week's Republican convention will force its self‑effacing candidate to bare at least part of his soul

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He's a guarded and self-effacing man who dislikes talking about himself. He prefers to let the facts speak for themselves, not least through those PowerPoint presentations he's so fond of. For all his wealth, he's a thrifty fellow too. As we learned from an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, he washes his Brooks Brothers non-iron shirts in his hotel room while on the campaign trail. And indubitably, the handsome and eternally preppy Mitt Romney is a Brooks Brothers kind of guy.

But this week, there will be no place for diffidence. For a decade at least, first covertly then overtly, Romney has been seeking the presidency. Now his hour has come. The Republican convention that opens tomorrow in Tampa will formally anoint him as the party's challenger to Barack Obama in November. And if he is to win the White House, he will have to begin talking about himself, starting with these four days in Florida.

This ought be Mitt Romney's moment. He is a proven manager, just the sort of practised hand on the tiller of the storm-tossed national economy that the country yearns for. But despite a modest improvement since his choice of the dynamic Paul Ryan as running mate, he still trails the President by a point or two in national polls and – more important – by a wider margin in most of the swing states that will decide the outcome in November. This weekend Intrade, the online betting site that has called the last two US elections almost exactly, gives the President a 57 per cent chance of re-election, against a 42 per cent chance for his opponent.

Romney has not had a good summer. He has never been much of a candidate. Stilted and awkward, he finds it hard to connect with voters, and often hits the wrong note despite one of the most tightly scripted campaigns imaginable. And he hasn't improved much since wrapping up the nomination in April.

There was the clunky, gaffe-strewn trip to Britain, Israel and Poland. More damaging was the curious listlessness that allowed the Obama camp to define Romney as the callous and greedy corporate vulture from Bain Capital, whose main goal is to ensure that he and his rich chums pay as little tax as possible. The controversy over Romney and his money blew up again last week with the publication of internal Bain documents detailing the complex investments of the private equity firm's founder, many of them held offshore.

Some problems can't be laid at the candidate's door: for instance, the row over the asinine remarks on rape by the Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin that obliterated Romney's efforts to focus on the economy and spotlighted the unruly social conservative wing of the party.

And now there's a potential real hurricane that could appear in Tampa as an uninvited guest on Monday (though at time of writing Isaac was a tropical storm, whose precise track was not yet clear). The last time a hurricane happened in Tampa was in 1921, when Warren Harding occupied the White House and Florida was a swampy, steamy backwater with a mere six electoral votes. Today's Florida is the single most coveted swing state of all with 29 – a prize Republican organisers deemed worth the risk of Mother Nature's revenge.

In even closer proximity is Vice-President Joe Biden, who will be holding events in Tampa tomorrow and Tuesday as part of an unprecedented spoiler effort by the Obama campaign. As Republicans convene in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the President will be touring three other battleground states – Iowa, Colorado and Virginia – while Michelle Obama makes a heavily advertised appearance on the top-rated David Letterman show. Gone are the days when the parties tacitly agreed not to steal each other's convention thunder, as in 1988 when then Vice-President George Bush Snr went fishing in Wyoming during the Democrats' do in Atlanta.

But despite the competition, Tampa offers Romney his best chance of making amends for his summer shortcomings. The audience could not be friendlier. Minutely choreographed, US conventions make our party conferences look like impromptu street brawls. The latter merely signal the annual British political rentrée; a convention is a quadrennial jamboree, part four-day "info-mercial", part coronation – one that marks the start of the sole period in the four-year presidential cycle, between convention and election, when the American party out of power has a formally designated leader in its presidential nominee.

The trick is to keep disruptive views and controversial characters out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind. Republican planners have not forgotten Pat Buchanan's "culture wars" speech – echoing many of the gripes of the strident social conservatives of today – at the 1992 convention, that badly damaged the party's efforts to present a moderate face. This time, no chances are being taken.

Ex-president George W Bush, toxic emblem of the last Republican administration, is not attending (although brother Jeb, Florida's former governor and still very popular in both state and party, is). Ron Paul, the cussed 77-year-old libertarian who challenged Romney in the primaries, will not speak or have his name put in nomination. The hope is that a fulsome video tribute will placate Paul's fanatical supporters. Sarah Palin has not been invited. Newt Gingrich, another former candidate and loosest cannon of them all, has been kicked into the long grass of convention-fringe workshops. As for Joe Arpaio, the celebrated Arizona sheriff whose anti-immigration views are too hot even for today's Republican party, he reportedly will be speaking to a gathering of like-minded delegates at the local zoo on Thursday.

But Christian conservative Rick Santorum, Romney's most troublesome opponent in the primaries, will have a major speaking slot – a sign, like the choice of Ryan, of how the candidate is trying to allay the doubts of the social right. Some kind of appearance is also promised for Donald Trump, in-house Republican carnival barker, vociferous "birther" and one self-promoter for whom Romney evidently does have a soft spot.

These, however, are sideshows. A brighter spotlight will be on the party's rising stars: a trio of governors, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Nikki Haley from South Carolina, and New Jersey's pugnacious, crowd-pleasing Chris Christie, who will deliver the keynote address, as well as Florida's own pin-up-boy senator, Marco Rubio. If Romney loses in November, all four will automatically be in the frame for 2016. But the brightest spotlight of all, of course, will be on Romney himself.

And a carefully selected part, at least, of his soul will be bared. Family and friends will tell not of Mitt the business automaton but of Mitt the human being. The most important "humaniser" will be Ann Romney, a far more engaging and effective campaigner than her husband. There had been a risk that her speech, scheduled for Monday, would not be carried live on the major networks that are carrying only one hour of live convention coverage on the final three evenings. But she will now have a prime-time slot on Tuesday. The big moment will be Romney's acceptance speech on Thursday. He's no great orator, but oddly, for once he does not need to be.

Acceptance speeches rarely hit the heights: who remembers the words of Obama, the supreme orator, at Denver football stadium in 2008? This moreover is a downbeat, often downright nasty election campaign, a "lesser-of-two-evils" choice between a president who has lost the mystical aura of four years ago and an opponent who singularly fails to enthuse.

Businessmen tend to be uncomfortable politicians. They lack natural empathy with voters, and find it hard to tolerate, let alone enjoy, the absurdities of campaigning. Romney is no exception. But his calculation is that American voters aren't in the mood for a romance, à la Kennedy 1960 or Obama 2008. This time, they're less interested in sparkle than in competence. They want a practical guy, he believes, a problem-solver who can make things work. "I know what it takes to turn around difficult situations," Romney told the WSJ. Or, as he put it before: "It's nice to be loved, but it's better to be respected."

His game plan from here on in is clear. First, he pulls off a successful convention. The Tea Party and the social conservatives don't rock the boat; the Republicans come across as a reasonable bunch. The Romney/Ryan ticket thus secures a durable bounce in the polls – not on the scale of the 16 per cent boost Bill Clinton achieved in 1992, to be sure, but this year just two or three points could be the difference between winning and losing. Then a blitz on the airwaves in the home stretch. The Republicans have been out-raising Obama all summer and have been sitting on much of the cash. According to one estimate, Romney is in a position to outspend his opponent two to one on TV ads over the final months. Will the plan work? Who knows. Even the risk-averse, super-organised Romney is at the mercy of unscripted events – starting this week with Isaac.

Convention at a glance

Venue Tampa Bay Times Forum in Florida, normally used for ice hockey or concerts. A recent $40m renovation gave it a 105-rank digital pipe organ to entertain the 20,000 who can comfortably fit inside.

Attendees Officially 2,286 delegates, plus up to 50,000 spectators, caterers, security, officials, media, etc. Ron Paul's supporters have also threatened to turn out in support of the Texan congressman, who technically remains a candidate.

Theme In an attempt to "highlight America's entrepreneurial strength" – and as a riposte to Barack Obama – the party has chosen the theme "We built it". The President said last month that government, not business, was responsible for creating jobs and an environment in which business could flourish.

Speakers The big one is Mitt Romney, who will attempt to win over a public still doubtful of his charms. His wife, Ann, has been drafted, while the keynote address will come from the New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie. Other headliners, such as the former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, reveal the party's concerns over its flagging appeal to female voters.

Resolutions The most controversial is a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion with no explicit exceptions for cases of rape or incest. A second is said to oppose Mr Obama in upholding a federal law that bars recognition of same-sex couples. And a third would ban consideration of foreign law in US courts: a measure aimed at the as-yet-unrealised prospect of Sharia playing a part in the US justice system.

History Florida is a key marginal, its chad-ridden vote in 2000 between George W Bush and Al Gore going all the way to the Supreme Court. Both times the Republicans came here for their convention, in 1968 and 1972, their candidate won the presidency.

Weather Meteorologists predict Hurricane Isaac will hit Florida the same day as the convention.

Megan Tatum

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