The curtain has dropped on the Republican National Convention, but two key questions remain:
Did Mitt Romney and the hundreds of other participants in this traditional political extravaganza accomplish what they intended? And where do the Republican Party and the Romney campaign go from here in the 67 days left until Election Day?
Mr. Romney roused the GOP faithful crowded into the Tampa Bay Times Forum Thursday night. His speech revealed a few more details about his personal life – something that doesn’t come easy to him. And convention schedulers obviously worked hard to leave the impression that the party has become more inclusive, although the roster of speakers seemed more diverse than the delegates gathered to hear them.
There were more dynamic, more natural speakers than Romney – vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Sen. Marco Rubio in his introduction of Mr. Romney. But others – politicians being politicians – seemed more self-promotional.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent a large chunk of his keynote speech touting his own accomplishments, referring only later to Romney (who appeared unenthusiastic if not uncomfortable as he watched). So did former Sen. Rick Santorum, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
Many speakers recounted their family roots in working-class struggle – immigrant parents and grandparents (Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, US Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Senator Rubio of Florida) – or in Jim Crow racism (Ms. Rice).
Such stories may have humanized the speakers and the general impression of Republicans. But did it do much for Romney, who had a privileged upbringing as the son of an auto executive and governor?
Delegates were enthusiastic about Ann Romney, who tried to add humanizing brushstrokes to the portrait of her husband – their life as young newly-weds in a basement apartment eating tuna casseroles and raising their passel of boys. But it’s unclear whether that does much to attract undecided voters – especially those struggling economically who’ve already heard many times about the Romneys' extraordinary wealth, many homes, and Mrs. Romney’s “couple of Cadillacs.”
Their Mormon religion has been an issue in the campaign, with a substantial minority of evangelicals saying they would not vote for someone of Romney’s faith.
Paul Ryan and Mike Huckabee both alluded to this in their speeches.
"I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country,” said Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who, as a presidential candidate four years ago, made what sounded like questioning if not dismissive comments about Romney’s religion.
“Mitt and I go to different churches,” acknowledged Mr. Ryan, who is Roman Catholic. But, he added, “Our different faiths come together in the same moral creed. We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life.”
In his acceptance speech, Romney himself touched on his church, although not in any theological sense.
But those were politicians expected to frame (or reframe) their rhetoric if not their positions to accommodate a political goal.
Instead, the effort to give a personal glimpse into the character of Romney – and to at least indirectly address his faith, which remains an enigma to many Americans – came from fellow church members who told personal stories of Romney’s quiet prayerful support and practical help during times of trouble and deep loss.
“Mitt prayed with and counseled church members seeking spiritual direction, single mothers raising children, couples with marital problems, youth with addictions, immigrants separated from their families, and individuals whose heat had been shut off,” said Grant Bennett of Romney’s years as an unpaid lay pastor. “He found the definition of religion given by James in the New Testament to be a practical guide: ‘Pure religion … is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.’”
Party conventions traditionally bring a bump in the polls for the nominee. In Romney’s case, at least at this point, he needs that more than Barack Obama will after next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC.
He’s slightly behind Obama in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and his favorable ratings are lower than Obama’s.
“Romney’s favorability rating is the lowest of any major-party nominee at roughly the time of his convention in available data back to 1984,” ABC News reported with its poll this week. “Indeed he’s the first, at this stage of the campaign, to be rated more unfavorably than favorably by a significant margin.”
“On the other hand,” the ABC News analysis continued, “Obama’s net favorable rating is substantially lower than the four previous incumbents’ (Reagan, both Bushes, and Bill Clinton) at this point.”
So the race remains very close – close and given to exaggerations and misstatements of fact on both sides. That was true of both Paul Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s speeches, according to many analysts. The New York Times laid them out here. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse has been quoted as saying, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
As the convention wound down at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, delegates mused about what they’d learned and what they might do with what they’ve learned. A major job for candidates like Romney is to unify the party – bring together social conservatives, tea partyers, Ron Paul supporters, and mainstream Republicans – not only so they vote but so they donate and help get out the vote.
Texas delegate Linda Howard had supported Newt Gingrich. But having heard Romney’s speech and been inspired by some of the other speakers (Rice, Rubio, and Cruz especially) she’s ready now to work for Romney.
“He just represents what America is all about,” she said. “He wasn't my choice, but he is now. Romney has that total package that America needs.”
"The failure we had in '08 was that Barack Obama could paint a visual picture of what he thought he could make the country look like in four years" and Republicans couldn't, he said. "The challenge for Romney and Ryan is to paint a picture – what does Reagan’s shining city on a hill look like. If they can paint that picture, they win."
Staff writer Amanda Paulson contributed to this report.