After 18 months of campaigning, hundreds of millions of dollars and more than 70,000 television ads, Mitt Romney has yet to connect with the nation. As former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour joked this week, all many voters know about Romney is what his opponents have told them: "He's a wealthy plutocrat married to a known equestrian.''
Romney can change the arc of that story line tonight in Tampa as he accepts the Republican nomination for president. For all of the money and television ads, he remains a distant figure with a murky agenda. His challenge is to deliver a speech combining personal warmth with a clear vision for the future. So far, his campaign has failed on both counts.
The outlines of the Romney biography are familiar. Son of a Michigan governor and auto executive. Mormon, husband and father of five sons. Became wealthy running private equity firm Bain Capital. Rescued the Salt Lake City Olympics and served one term as governor of Massachusetts. But it is a one-dimensional description, and Republicans this week agree that Romney has to offer voters a more complete picture.
After avoiding talk of religion for months, Romney's religious faith is expected to be directly acknowledged. Former Olympic athletes will speak, and there will be some syrupy videos. But Romney has to connect with voters open to change but still cool to him. Otherwise the caricatures will take stronger hold: the dad who strapped the dog carrier to the roof of the station wagon on a family vacation, the cold-hearted investor who bought companies and laid off workers before selling for huge profits, the rich guy with a car elevator who cannot relate to regular voters. Romney does not have to morph into Bill Clinton and feel everyone's pain, but voters need more from him to make an informed judgment.
They also want a road map for the future. Romney can be expected to renew his pledges to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank regulatory reforms. He will build on the argument that convention speaker after speaker have made that President Barack Obama has failed to revive the economy and create enough jobs, and that he can do better. But a successful candidate has to let voters know more than what he is against. They want a clear path forward, and Romney's has been muddled.
The Republican nominee wants to cut spending and eliminate tax breaks, but has not been specific about either. He embraces running mate Paul Ryan's Medicare changes but not key specifics. He wants immigration reform but opposes the Dream Act and says illegal immigrants should "self-deport.'' He wants a new energy policy but embraces coal.
Vague policy is often forgiven if there is more clarity about the candidate. But by nature or by design, Romney has not been revealing. He has been reluctant to talk about his religious service, and he has distanced himself from his accomplishments as governor. He has been defensive about his work at Bain, and he refused to provide more than two years of tax returns. That opaqueness has enabled Democrats to draw their unflattering picture of the Republican nominee, which Republicans have complained about this week without offering more than platitudes about their candidate.
So far, the convention has failed to provide a more complete picture. Ann Romney delivered a speech with a couple of nice lines but not one memorable anecdote about her husband. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked mostly about himself and New Jersey. Ryan is driving the Republican budget agenda and is the more intriguing personality at the moment.
It is up to Romney to fill in the blanks, and he has to do it tonight.