Romney looks to balance specifics with vision at Republican convention

When he walks to the podium in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday evening, Mitt Romney will need to strike a balance between policy specifics and what President George H.W. Bush called “the vision thing.”

Speak too airily, and he will be accused of not offering enough substance. Make too policy-heavy an address and the fine print might muddy the bigger picture.

Every challenger for the presidency has faced a similar dilemma, but it is particularly acute given this year’s political landscape, in which economic problems loom so large.

“You have to put a little meat on the bones. At the moment, he is the non-Obama and a lot of his support is coming from that fact,” said David Yepsen, who covered numerous presidential elections as a reporter before becoming director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Yepsen said that undecided voters, in particular, would find it “helpful to have some specificity” from the candidate.

Republican strategist Keith Appell agreed, albeit in more partisan terms.

“If you’re just telling people that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing, you’re not telling them anything they don’t already know,” he said. “This year, people want to know more about what you’re going to do, how you’re going to fix things.”

Romney can point to a number of past instances where he has laid out policy proposals, albeit in varying degrees of detail.

During the Republican primary process, he was fond of referencing his 59-point plan to stimulate growth. Doing so apparently buttressed his image as an economic problem-solver.

A more recent attempt to contrast himself with the president on foreign policy was less successful. A speech to the national Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in July was overshadowed by the gaffe-strewn international trip that immediately followed it.

Within the last month, Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPelosi: 'Thug' Putin not welcome in Congress Interior fast tracks study of drilling's Arctic impact: report Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia MORE (R-Wis.) as his running mate was founded at least in part on a shared love of wonkish detail, especially regarding entitlement spending.

But critics charged that there was little sign of that policy depth when Romney broke out a whiteboard  during a news conference in Greer, S.C., shortly after the Ryan choice became public. Intending to demonstrate the difference between his plan for Medicare and that of the president, Romney leaned heavily on generalized — and hotly contested — claims.

Even some sympathetic observers argue that Romney should focus on using the convention spotlight to give voters a more intimate sense of himself than has previously been revealed. Such a need is urgent, they contend, given the extent to which he lags Obama in likability.

“I don’t think either the crowd in Tampa or the people who turn on their TVs will be wanting to hear a 12-point plan,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “I think the convention is going to be pretty personal. I understand that he is going to talk about his family and faith more than he has done — and I think that’s a good thing.”

The broader issue of religious faith and how it ought to intersect with public policy is sure to be raised at the convention. Abortion was put too close to center stage for many Republicans’ liking when Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) made his now-infamous remarks about “legitimate rape” in an Aug. 19 television interview.

The controversy over Akin’s remarks helped drive attention toward the draft Republican platform that was drawn up shortly afterward. The platform included a call for a constitutional amendment to enact a blanket ban on abortion, which Democrats swiftly sought to label the “Akin plank.”

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor and expert on political communications, said it would be foolish for Romney to pay anything more than lip service to conservative social policies.

“I think he has to touch on it and then run like crazy away from it,” Berkovitz said.

Specific controversies aside, Mackowiak said Romney did indeed need to lay out his policies between now and Election Day. But he argued that speeches specifically dedicated to that purpose, rather than the broader canvas of a convention address, were the places to do it.

At the convention, he said, “you are going to have 15,000 or 20,000 people cheering everything he says. That is not the right time to do a detailed policy speech.”