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Romney's Need To Please Tugs In Different Directions

Analysts say one of Mitt Romney's goals in tonight's speech as he accepts the GOP presidential nomination is to "establish some connection" with Americans who are struggling.
Michael Conroy
Analysts say one of Mitt Romney's goals in tonight's speech as he accepts the GOP presidential nomination is to "establish some connection" with Americans who are struggling.

Mitt Romney has a tough to-do list.

He has to walk an ideological tightrope. As he accepts the GOP presidential nomination tonight, Romney will try to fire up partisans in the convention hall and watching at home, without turning off moderates and independent voters.

He also has to convey certain intangible qualities. The former Massachusetts governor will want to appear presidential while also attempting to lift his low "likability" ratings.

All that, while perhaps also needing to bring fire to his normally reserved and controlled persona in order to follow other speeches that have roused the convention in Tampa, Fla. — most notably last night's address by his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

"It seems like he's trying to ask one speech to do an awful lot," says David Yepsen, who directs a public policy institute at Southern Illinois University.

President Obama will face similar paradoxical challenges next week at his convention, having to excite a Democratic base that appears more lukewarm than Republicans while also appealing to moderates, and having to ask for another term despite the still-sluggish economy.

Romney, like Ryan, is "going to emphasize the economy again and again and again," says Richard Finan, a former GOP president of the Ohio Senate.

In addition to his yearlong critique of Obama on the economy and federal spending, Romney has signaled in recent weeks that he intends to broaden the attack to include issues such as welfare and Medicare.

Parts of the Republican coalition have distrusted Romney because of his formerly more progressive positions on health care, gun control and gay rights. But he seems to have assuaged many doubters by adding a conservative like Ryan to the ticket, and he benefits from the strong desire among Republicans to turn Obama out from office.

"Now that he picked Paul Ryan and has the base of the party all excited, he has a little more room to aim a message at other voters that he needs," Yepsen says.

Still, Finan and other observers expect Romney will continue to speak mainly to his party's core supporters, rather than attempting to pivot at this point more toward the political center.

"Romney's going to make a message and argument that makes Republican, right-of-center voters turn out," says David Carney, a GOP consultant based in New Hampshire. "This is going to be a base election — there are so few undecided voters."

There are other Republicans who believe Romney will need to appeal to the small number of swing voters in perhaps 10 key states who may ultimately determine the election. The electorate may be polarized, but neither candidate will win without picking up a few percent from voters in the middle.

"The base has to be confident he can win, and people on the edges have to be brought in to believe him," says David Woodard, a Republican consultant who teaches at Clemson University.

Romney can't be all things to all people. He shouldn't signal a change in any position, says Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a prominent social conservative. But he still needs to demonstrate appeal to voters who are undecided and still may not know him well.

"The base is fired up," Bauer says. "What his main goal ought to be is to help undecided voters imagine him, see him as president, as somebody that for four or eight years they would want to lead the country."

That might be accomplished less with a litany of positions on issues, Bauer suggests, than "the personal narrative and people seeing his heart and emotions."

Romney also may speak more about his Mormon faith in this speech than he has through much of the campaign.

Obama's polling lead has narrowed in recent days, as pollsters look less at registered voters and more at individuals they believe are in fact likely to turn out to vote. But the president's edge in terms of likability remains huge — 54 percent for Obama versus 31 percent for Romney, according to a Gallup poll conducted last week. The likability gap was even wider in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Several top Republicans have sought to dismiss the problem of Romney's unfavorability ratings this week, downplaying his need for a Sally Field moment that would make clear that people really like him.

"People don't care about liking who they elect," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told The New York Times on Tuesday. "They care about electing someone who is going to work for them, that's going to fight for them, that's going to prove that they deserve to be there."

The most important thing for Romney may be to establish his "executive credentials" and tout his own record of success in business, suggests Tom Ingram, a Republican consultant in Tennessee. Several of this week's GOP speakers, including Romney's wife, Ann, have emphasized that success in business is something to be celebrated rather than castigated.

Romney will want to show that "he's not only a fine businessman [but] a fine man," as Ryan said last night.

It will be important for Romney to "establish some connection" with Americans who are struggling, Ingram says. "He has to show some understanding of where the middle is, in terms of their frustrations and anger and expectations of government."

Speaking to "the middle," Ingram suggests, means speaking both to middle-class voters and to those in the middle of the ideological spectrum — independent voters and even moderate to conservative Democrats.

"We have both sides right now playing to their fringes, and that's not where the election's going to be won," Ingram says. "The fringes are going to stay where they are."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.