By Justin Sink - 08/30/12 04:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney was revising and rewriting his acceptance speech on Wednesday, according to advisers and aides, hoping to find the words that would introduce and endear him to voters tuning in to the race for the first time.
“I can’t wait to hear what he’s going to say. It keeps changing, like, every other day. If someone would ask me, ‘What is he going to talk about?’ I’m not quite sure,” Ann Romney said with a laugh during a speech to the Latino Coalition on Wednesday afternoon. “Because he keeps almost rewriting it.”
The pressure will be intense.
Thursday’s speech is a chance for Romney to introduce himself to the nation he wants to lead, but his personality, equal parts awkward and humble, has never been a natural fit for touting the personal details for which voters yearn.
And that shows in the polls.
A Gallup poll last week showed Romney’s rival, President Obama, led him in likability and in characteristics such as honesty and decisiveness, while a Tuesday poll from CBS News showed that 37 percent of independent voters say they have no read on the Republican nominee.
Senior Republicans said Romney would need to reach deep and speak passionately and convincingly about himself and his vision.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was in the same position four years ago, said the speech would be Romney’s opportunity to combat the effect that “hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads” have had on his favorability ratings.
“We’ve got to bring those unfavorables down, and I think Ann Romney’s speech was a good forerunner for it,” McCain said in an interview. “I think it’s obviously an important speech, because some people who have never seen him before will be watching.”
Part of the challenge for Romney will be contextualizing his record as a co-founder of private equity firm Bain Capital, governor of Massachusetts and head of the Salt Lake City Olympics — each of which Democrats have mined for fodder for campaign ads and speeches.
If Romney can frame those experiences as instances where he grew industry and reduced fraud and waste, he’ll have a powerful position from which to attack Obama’s economic record. But if he allows his natural unease and caution to creep in, Americans could turn harder on his biography.
“For Romney, [Thursday] night is going to be talking a lot about experience, leadership abilities, his private-sector experience, a résumé of accomplishment,” said GOP strategist Chris Ingram. “The problem with that strategy is that the guy with the best résumé doesn’t necessarily win unless he also has the personality factor.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Romney would need to leave his comfort zone and sell himself.
“He’s a humble guy. And he’s a reserved guy,” Boehner said on PBS. “It’s hard for him to talk about himself, but this is the moment that he has to talk about himself.”
That sentiment was echoed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who said during an interview with CNN that the candidate must “share the Mitt Romney story.”
“It’s amazing that we live in a time where people see their candidates a lot but don’t really get a chance to know them, and I think Mitt Romney’s a reserved man,” Bush said.
But the former governor — who hails from a family that knows something about winning presidential elections — said Romney would also need to “lay out a compelling alternative to the mess we’re in.”
“He needs to restate his economic message to give people hope that there’s a better chance for a better life going forward,” Bush said.
Ironically, Democrats say they’re looking for similar substance from Romney on Thursday night. Aides to the Obama campaign said they would be watching to see if the candidate would offer concrete policy proposals.
“Like Mitt Romney’s campaign to date, the Republican convention has been heavy on attacks against President Obama and largely silent on anything that Mitt Romney would do to strengthen the middle class or build a better future for our nation,” said Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith.
Even if Romney needed simply to present a vision for the future with the right mixture of honesty and warmth, his task would be daunting. But Romney must also gauge how to do so while leveling those attacks on Obama’s record — all while being aware that voters find the incumbent more likable.
“He can have one or maybe two zingers, but the risk for him is if he hits too hard on Obama and just seems like a partisan politician, he offends some of the moderate, middle-of-the-road voters,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.
Further complicating matters for the candidate is that the true audience for the speech — centrist and independent voters — is a substantially different group from those assembled in the convention hall, who have eagerly lapped up firebrand speeches from allies like Paul Ryan and Chris Christie. The speech will measured against his fellow primetime speakers, a tall order for a candidate never fully comfortable in front of a crowd.
“Obviously, they want to have a positive response from the audience in front of them, but Romney is speaking to normal people, not the blue-haired people with elephants on their head,” Mackowiak said. “This is one of the three biggest opportunities you have — the debates, the VP choice and the acceptance speech — and he needs to be much more bold and forward-thinking about the future.”
Russell Berman contributed to this story.