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Opinion

How the GOP convention could help – and harm – Mitt Romney

Though news of hurricane Isaac hangs like a dark cloud over the delayed Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney still stands to benefit from the event in a couple key ways.

By John J. Pitney Jr. / August 28, 2012

Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, arrive at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., Aug. 27 to prepare for the Republican National Ceonvention in Tampa, Fla. this week. Even as hurricane Isaac heads for New Orleans, threatening to dampen Mr. Romney's convention debut, op-ed contributor John J. Pitney, Jr. stresses the convention's potential importance: 'A good convention might add just a percentage point to a candidate's national vote count, and a bad convention might subtract one. But if the election is extremely close – as the 2012 race may well be – that point could make a difference.'

Evan Vucci/AP

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Claremont, Calif.

Not since the Ford-Reagan contest for the 1976 Republican nomination has a party convention started with any doubt about its outcome. Conventions have evolved from decisionmaking bodies to television pageants. Nevertheless, they deserve attention.

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In the case of the Republican National Convention, which gets into full swing today after Monday's events were delayed by what is now hurricane Isaac, Mitt Romney stands to benefit in a couple of ways.

On the last night – now Thursday night, his acceptance speech in Tampa, Fla., will enable him to speak at length to a large national audience. Until now, he hasn't had that chance. If average voters have made his acquaintance at all, it's usually been through eight-second sound bites. Although anyone can watch his speeches on the Internet or C-SPAN, few actually do so.

He did have 20 debates with other GOP candidates, but these didn't let him show his mettle as the potential leader of the free world. The format kept him from talking for more than a minute at a time; and even then, he was often trading "gotcha" lines with Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. By national television standards, the audiences were modest. The highest-rated debate got 7.6 million viewers.

A lot more people watch acceptance speeches: Four years ago, more than 38 million tuned in for each speech by Barack Obama and John McCain. From a campaign perspective, such a setting is ideal. For the better part of an hour, there are no rivals or reporters in the way.

Of course, Mr. Romney may have to share primetime coverage this week with hurricane Isaac. But even if a worst-case scenario shifts the focus of Romney's spotlight moment, a shorter speech, appropriately sensitive to Isaac's hit on New Orleans could still help Romney's public perception.

Romney can take this opportunity to introduce himself to a large swath of the electorate. "Introduce" is the right word here, as polls show that many Americans still know little about him. He can show his compassion and people-over-politics priorities by focusing on a potentially storm-tossed Gulf Coast. 

 He can also talk about his record in business and government, his issue positions, and his family background. This information will be familiar to political junkies, but it will be new to millions of viewers. If Romney presents himself well, many of them will see him not as a flip-flopper or corporate greedhead, but as a wise problem solver ready for the Oval Office.

(The president will give his own acceptance speech a few days later, but he will get less of a boost than his challenger. He has been in the news for the past 3-1/2 years, and one more speech will have little effect on what Americans think about him.)

A good convention can also help Romney by energizing his party.

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