TAMPA — Thousands of pumped delegates flocked into this hurricane-wary city over the weekend far giddier about the prospects of beating President Barack Obama than they were four years ago — or even four months ago.
Have they finally fallen in love with Mitt Romney — their emotionally unavailable standard-bearer — after a lackluster courtship? Not quite.
For many, it is the other guy who's filling the passion gap.
"I liked Romney, but I love the ticket," said Linda Lepak, a lawyer from Oklahoma who initially supported Rick Santorum. "Paul Ryan can win back the hearts and minds of the young people in the country. I have five grown children and he speaks to them. He's just awesome. It's made me excited."
Asked if she had concerns about Romney's more moderate positions as governor of Massachusetts, she cut him some slack that she might not have nine months ago. "Everyone has life experiences that mature him or her," she said. "He's matured."
Interviews with more than two dozen delegates here reflect a consistent theme: a shift from resignation that their nominee was an uninspiring candidate who can't match President Barack Obama's communication skills, to a renewed sense of optimism that the race could be won with the Wisconsin congressman on the ticket.
"This was a caffeine choice for Mitt — it gave him energy," said Elizabeth Poirier, a Massachusetts delegate and state representative.
But with this new fervor among the most committed party activists also comes awareness that, at the moment, polls show the nation doesn't share their joy. The Ryan pick has not generated a significant bump for Romney nationally, or in the battleground states. Gallup's daily tracking, as well as several other national polls, found that following the Ryan announcement, Romney rose 1 or 2 points in popularity — which is within the margin of error — and the race remains a dead heat. He narrowly trails the president in most polls.
Still among the 2,286 delegates and 2,125 alternates here, there is clearly cause to breathe easier.
"Is Mitt Romney Ronald Reagan? No. But he's alive and he's a safe alternative to Obama," said Maine delegate Stavros Mendros. ..."And Paul Ryan puts Wisconsin and Minnesota in play for us."
After a bruising primary season, Romney spent the spring and summer struggling to muster passion within his own party. In the face of dismal economic news for Obama, Romney failed to get out his economic message — swamped instead by demands he release more tax returns and questions over whether he helped send jobs overseas at Bain Capital. In addition, polls showed voters didn't much like him personally.
A revealing April focus group — conducted by Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center — among a dozen likely Republican voters in the Tampa area indicated that even staunchly anti-Obama people, were still looking for a reason to vote for Romney instead of staying home.
Nationally, voters give him credit for being a successful businessman and knowledgeable on the economy, but they find Obama more relatable to their concerns. That worried even Romney's strongest supporters.
But today, delegates are saying — and hoping — that perhaps likability is overrated after three years of high unemployment and slow housing starts. Romney, they say, had a successful track record as an effective businessman, turned around the 2002 Olympics and served as governor as Massachusetts. They believe Ryan can go a long way in helping Romney articulate a stronger economic message and generate energy.
Massachusetts state Rep. Bradley Jones said when the Ryan pick was announced a few weeks ago, he was immediately besieged by members of his caucus. "These guys were really excited, 'Did you hear, did you hear, this is great,' " he said. "And these are not junkies, they're not delegates. But the pick really excited them for the same reason it excited everyone. … Mitt Romney had no margin of error on this pick. He had to get someone who worked well with him and energized people."