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GOP convention tinged with Obama envy

TAMPA, Fla. — Republicans are showing a touch of Obama envy ahead of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech.

They emphasize that their candidate is the better man to lead the nation, but express a begrudging admiration for the president’s ability to connect with voters and parry political attacks.

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“There’s something about Obama. They want to believe in him,” said Bill Armistead, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party and a GOP delegate. “He is the very first African-American president. ... He is liked. His policies are not.”

Romney has staked his campaign on the premise that his experience in the private sector is what’s needed to repair the economy and create jobs.

But despite an unemployment rate above 8 percent, the race for the White House remains a dead heat with just over two months to go until Election Day.

Many Republicans can only shake their heads at the resiliency of the “Teflon president.” 

“It’s because President Obama is an effective communicator — we all know that,” said Indiana delegate Robert Vane. 

“Obama is an amazing campaigner and he’s able to deflect any mention of issues onto attention on him personally,” said Steve Fair of the Oklahoma GOP. “He’s like the Teflon president; he’s amazing.”

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday found that while 54 percent of registered voters disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, he still enjoys a sizable lead on personality — 64 percent said Obama seemed more friendly and likable, compared to just 25 percent for Romney.

Attendees at the convention said the president’s skills as an orator are all that’s keeping him afloat in a sea of disappointing economic news.

“The president is an excellent politician. He gives great speeches. He can make people like him. He’s very charming,” said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who also tipped his cap to the president’s reelection campaign.

“In terms of pure political dynamics, they are very, very good” for Obama, Giuliani said, adding that he views the president’s campaign as dishonest and unethical.

Knowing that Obama carries a magnetism with voters, Republicans here are well-aware that if Romney is to take the White House, he will need to find a way to get voters to warm up to him, especially after the Obama campaign spent much of the summer painting him as a heartless tycoon at Bain Capital.

“Part of this is [Romney’s] likability,” said California delegate Jim Hartman. “One of the important things is to shrink the so-called likability gap that exists.”

Hartman said Romney has personal warmth that has yet to come through in his campaign.

Ann Romney’s convention speech Tuesday night was devoted almost exclusively to painting her husband as an honorable family man who can “lift up America.”

On Thursday, Romney will get the chance to make that case himself in what could be his best chance to break through with voters and make gains on Obama’s likability edge.

“An unprecedented amount of negative ads … had an effect. There’s no doubt about that,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “That’s why driving [Romney’s] favorables back up, I think, is one of the objects in this convention.”

Many who gathered for the convention in Tampa also lashed out at the media, saying they tilt the scales in Obama’s favor.

“The technical term is the liberal media is protecting his butt,” said John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate and former governor of New Hampshire.

“They are 70 to 80 percent in favor of Barack Obama,” said Giuliani. “They give him any benefit of the doubt.”

Others point to Obama’s loyal base as a persistent challenge.

“There’s 33 percent that are going to vote for him no matter what he did,” said Bruce Thompson, a delegate from San Diego. “If he killed somebody, it wouldn’t matter — they’d still vote for him.”

Despite all those perceived advantages, Republicans remain optimistic that Romney will begin to move up in the polls after Labor Day.

But in order for that to happen, several delegates said, Romney needs to contrast his economic plan with Obama’s record.

The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that the economy grew just 1.7 percent in the second quarter of the year, below the levels needed to cut into the nation’s unemployment rate, which has been stuck above 8 percent for nearly the entirety of Obama’s term.

“Most people don’t focus on it until the kids go back to school,” said Sununu. “You’ll see the polls ooze down for Obama and ooze up for Romney. It’s going to be a much easier race than people think.”

“When it comes down to it … we have to make a change,” said Armistead. “People like [Obama], but he’s not getting the job done.”

— Russell Berman contributed to this report.

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