Mitt Romney signaled in weekend interviews that he is brushing off advice that he attempt a public image makeover this week to make himself more likable and more connected to voters at the human level. Some of the most experienced Republican strategists hope he doesn't really mean that. Romney's inability so far to counter President Barack Obama's efforts to portray him as an out-of-touch elitist who got rich through predatory business practices is perhaps his biggest general election hurdle, many top Republicans here said Monday. Replacing this image with something more appealing and, they say, more fairly reflective of Romney's real life and values is by far the most urgent task this week for the GOP nominee. Again and again, top operatives referred to the convention as an opportunity for Romney to "reintroduce" himself to the electorate.
Widespread concern about Romney's public image was reflected in comments by strategist Karl Rove, who said at a public appearance Monday morning that he has been a "little bit mystified" by what he regards as the Romney campaign's flaccid handling of the controversy over Romney's refusal to release more than two years of his income tax returns.
Rove said Romney could have pressed Obama for making no issue four years ago about Sen. John McCain releasing just two years of returns, a contradiction which shows Obama's supposed concern about disclosure this year "is all about politics."
"I would have called him earlier and more forcefully than they have," Rove said at a POLITICO breakfast briefing, making his belief that the failure to do so has been damaging.
"This is an issue that has hurt Romney because again it's fed-up people who already have an instinct and a suspicion about him (that) he's a rich guy, (and) must be hiding something," Rove said.
Haley Barbour, one of the party's most experienced operatives as well as a former governor of Mississippi, said he's been frustrated by Romney's handling of the tax issue, not on ethical grounds, but because the campaign has allowed the matter to become a "distraction."
In one of the more memorable lines of the Tampa proceeding so far, Barbour said most typical voters knows little about Romney except what Obama has told them: "He's a wealthy plutocrat married to a known equestrian."
Ann Romney, the nominee's wife, is a horse-riding devotee, an enthusiasm that has been used to portray her in some media accounts as effete.
Barbour's crack recalled an old Florida political yarn, which does not have the advantage of being true, that Democrat Claude Pepper was once attacked by a political rival for having a brother who was a "known homo sapiens" and a sister who was a "thespian."
But Barbour made clear at the briefing that Romney's challenge this week is no joking matter.
"There's no time like the present," for Romney to reintroduce himself on more positive terms to voters, he said, calling the convention "a real opportunity for people to learn more about Mitt and his family and his life."
In a Saturday interview with POLITICO, Romney rejected what he suggested was a sort of political cosmetic surgery advocated by political or media commentators who say he needs to overhaul his image. Paraphrasing Popeye, Romney said, "I am who I am."
It was a line that suggested a kind of genial freedom from artifice an impression that was offset a bit by the fact that he repeated it nearly word for word in another interview the same day.
In the same POLITICO interview, Romney didn't exactly show a common touch by pointing to his membership in an upscale fraternity at Brigham Young University as evidence of his ability to connect.
What's more, there's at least some evidence that the public has only limited interest in getting to know Romney more intimately. In a Pew survey published Monday, a middling 44 percent of respondents said they were interested in Romney's acceptance speech. That compares with 53 percent who were interested in seeing George W. Bush speak in 2000.
Barbour's remarks came at a briefing for an outside group, Resurgent Republic, which polls policy issues in order to help shape the debate on favorable terms for conservatives. Whit Ayres, a prominent GOP pollster, said it is clear the intense public concern about the economy would afford a great opportunity for Romney, if he could present himself as an appealing alternative.
"This convention is very, very important for putting meat on the bones for Gov. Romney," Ayres said.
Not stated by Republican strategists in public forums but widely discussed in private hand-wringing sessions and in background remarks to reporters is a fear that Romney may simply not be up to the task, and that if he was he would have begun connecting with voters and framing his life story in appealing terms before now.
This view has set what so far, combined with bleak weather and security that has turned downtown Tampa into a kind of Green Zone, is a somewhat desultory tone to this convention. Republicans believe Obama's governing defects should make a GOP victory virtually inevitable, but Romney's political defects make it only longshot possible.
Romney's own air of resignation aside, the team around the Republican presidential candidate appears sensitive to the need for him to rejigger his political brand.
The lineup of speakers in Tampa includes Bob White, Romney's close friend and former Bain business partner, and former Olympic athletes who can speak to his success in Salt Lake City. In a nod to Romney's faith, a former Mormon stake president will deliver the invocation on the final day of the convention.
GOP pollster David Winston, who advises congressional Republicans, said it was mostly important for Romney to make a biographical case so that voters would be open to his arguments on policy.
"In this environment, I think what background sets up is willingness of people to listen to what your policy is," Winston said. "And it can set it up in a very favorable way so that people really want to hear it."
If some Republicans are concerned about Romney's skill in fighting back, it doesn't mean that they believe Obama has been fighting fair. Several expressed contempt for the incumbent's strategy, one they say is necessary because to run a winning campaign on his own record would be impossible.
Lampooning Obama's message, Rove said: "It has been about my opponent is a weird, rich, vampire capitalist who cannot be trusted anywhere near anything that has to do with your pocketbook because he'll steal your money and send it to a Swiss bank account."