TAMPA — Mitt Romney is about to face the most important political moment of his life.
The speech Romney delivers at the Republican National Convention's final night will be one of his last opportunities to sketch a portrait of who he is and what he stands for to a country whose battleground states have seen him relentlessly portrayed by the Obama campaign as a heartless corporate raider — a perception that has dented his approval ratings and made it difficult for the GOP to change the campaign narrative.
In a precious hour before a national television audience, Romney has the opportunity to connect with voters in the convention hall but also well beyond. There is a deeper, softer, and much kinder side to Romney, those who know him insist, but he provides only those closest to him with a view of it. He has run the least biographically anchored campaign of any presidential nominee in recent history, declining to present his own fleshed-out accounts of his time at Bain Capital, his time as a bishop in the Mormon church, or his term as Massachusetts governor.
That case has been made for him over the first three days of the convention through speeches and videos — and most dramatically through a Tuesday night prime-time appeal from his wife, Ann — that his life experience as an executive, church leader, Olympics chief and dad have created a three-dimensional, attractive candidate, not the caricature Republicans feel the Obama campaign team has created.
The aim has been to "make the argument that all these things have prepared him to make him uniquely qualified to handle all the things" the country is facing, said Romney adviser Russ Schiefer, who has masterminded the convention programming. "There's lots of different ways that he can tell that story."
But few will be as important as the speech he delivers himself.
Romney's speeches are usually drafted by committee, then he tears into them, or he writes portions himself.
The words he says tonight will be authentically his, for better or worse.
With that in mind, here are five ways Romney can use his speech to maximum effect:
1 Go bold. The Romney campaign has used that word frequently to describe the choice of Paul Ryan for the No. 2 slot on the ticket.
But while choosing the controversial Wisconsin congressman was politically risky, Romney has largely reverted back to his no-details posture, the one he has had for much of the campaign.
The convention speech is not the place for policy planks. But it is the place for Romney to show he can be bigger.
"Republicans have a tendency to ask voters to choose our medicine because it tastes the worst, not because it works the best," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who worked on Romney's 2008 presidential campaign.
To make that case, Romney should pitch his own plans, in as much of a positive frame as possible. He needs to explain why picking Ryan wasn't about getting editorial board headlines with the word "bold," but that he shares Ryan's principles, that he believes the nation is headed down the wrong path and that he wants to do what is politically risky but philosophically right.
That kind of language hasn't been Romney's strong suit before. But he needs to present voters with the path forward.
2 Go light on red meat. The pick of Ryan would seem to have taken care of tending to the base for most of the rest of the cycle.
Romney has tended to veer toward the excited and hyperbolic in his criticisms of President Barack Obama on the campaign trail, including recent attempts to dent the president's still-high likability numbers.
Instead, Romney needs to look toward the independent voters who are going to be interested in hearing from him. John McCain was mindful of this four years ago, when he reminded convention attendees of his maverick reputation, and his history of bucking the party line.
Romney doesn't have that type of political history, but he does have the ability to convey that he understands the weight of the job he hopes to get, and how frightened people are about the future.
Romney has spent a fair amount of time talking process and day-to-day combat throughout this cycle. This is an opportunity to make a statement that shows he wants to be president for reasons other than, as Peggy Noonan once put it, because it's the top job.
"The country believes Obama has done the best that he can, it hasn't worked and it is time for a change. Romney and Ryan need to explain that they are that change," Castellanos said.
3 Go in sorrow, not anger. Romney has dropped the precept that he considers Obama to be a "nice guy" who is in over his head, and is instead hinting at more sinister intentions in the president's attacks against his rival.
That won't cut it for what is supposed to be soaring oratory. Romney's advisers make clear he feels personally affronted by attacks he feels have gone beyond bounds.
But he can't use the convention as a forum to adjudicate those attacks — swing voters, strategists on both sides say, aren't differentiating one negative attack from another in a cycle that's gone dark, and fast.
He can instead give voice to the line that most polling shows to be real among even Obama supporters — disappointment.
He can say that he too hoped for better four years ago — while he didn't support the president, he wished for our country to succeed.
He can describe Obama not as power-mad or filled with "hate," but as a failed president who has not met his potential. He can lay out, as Schiefer put it, their "philosophical" differences as it relates to governing.
"Neither of these candidates is Reagan or Clinton," said Republican political strategist Rob Stutzman. "I think they can address character issues by casting seriously and earnestly (his message). . . . I would focus on the country and build confidence in (the idea that) he has not just the ability, but the plan, the vision, that will succeed. I think people are looking for competence."
4 Name names. It was a device that McCain used to great effect when he gave his speech four years ago — mentioning voters he had met on the trail, whose circumstances he said touched him.
One of them included a service member, at a time when the public appetite for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had sunk dramatically. It was also a way to remind voters that McCain is a former war hero.
This is the first cycle in modern presidential races in which the Republican ticket has not featured a candidate, either at the top or bottom of the lineup, with a military background. And they are facing the president who ordered the mission that took out Osama bin Laden.
Romney could highlight military members whom he has met on the trail. He could also talk about the lives of everyday people he has met in places like Iowa or Ohio — the stories they have told him.
This is something Romney has done in his campaign appearances, but without putting much meat on the bones when he describes the life-tales that have been relayed to him.
Given Romney's own wealth and a childhood that was of privilege, he will never be able to have a Clintonian moment in which he conjures his vision of his rise from a place called Hope. But he can use other people's lives to demonstrate he understands what they're going through.
5 Talk about George. There are few relationships in Mitt Romney's life that have impacted his trajectory as much as the one he had with his father.
George Romney ran for president. He ran a large company. He was a governor. And he saw his national campaign ended after a comment about "brainwashing" in relation to the Vietnam War.
Mitt Romney has learned many lessons from his father, directly and indirectly. His father has remained a looming figure in his life — Romney's Commercial Street headquarters has a framed magazine cover featuring a story about George Romney during his own presidential campaign.
When Romney talks about his father on the trail, it's usually in a narrow cast — as a husband who performed handyman tasks; as the former auto industry figure; as the governor of Michigan. He rarely talks about his father's own campaign for president, other than saying he himself has learned what not to do with the media from it.
If Romney were to change his approach tonight and explain what his father meant to him, what he learned from him, how he taught him to be the man he has become — with details, and some emotion — it would add more definition to the candidate than anything else he's done so far.
Getting a feel for sand, sun
Romney has taken a crash course on getting to know Florida, which he desperately needs to win. His push is working, many state Republicans say. Page 6