Mitt Romney is an energized man—and not only because he’ll be accepting his party’s nomination for president tonight. Romney’s speaking abilities steadily improved throughout the long Republican primary season. But his choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate seems to have jolted Romney awake and given him a more accessible, believable and slightly more exciting speaking persona.
In the nick of time too, as far as Thursday’s all-important acceptance speech is concerned. The question is will it be enough? Can Romney leave behind the sometimes stodgy debater we’re familiar with, firing up not only the faithful in Tampa but the rest of America besides? Can he achieve the breakthrough on everyone’s lips: will he become human enough?
Equally important: can he find a theme for this campaign in the time remaining to him, one that gives meaning to his quest apart from ambition and his personal view that President Obama has mismanaged the business of America?
The Ryan Effect
Republicans from across the political spectrum have demonstrated their enthusiasm and delight at the selection of Ryan. Americans in general are only beginning to feel the Ryan effect. But for Mitt Romney, it’s already paying dividends in terms of his stage presence and effectiveness on the stump.
Television audiences saw this clearly in the August 11 announcement in Norfolk, Va. of Ryan’s selection. Romney has rarely looked so relaxed, and so much like a man enjoying the opportunity to speak. This sense of a candidate in his element should only grow now that, in the words of Fred Barnes in the Wall Street Journal, “the looming fiscal crisis, Medicare, and the size and role of government are front and center of the campaign.”
The vitality Romney seems to draw from his partnership with Ryan will be a crucial element of his acceptance speech tonight. All convention speeches demand a level of rhetorical energy that far surpasses the requirements of a stump speech. Ronald Reagan’s extraordinary ad-libbed speech at the 1976 Republican convention when, in defeat, he was invited to speak by President Ford, is an excellent example of how a convention speech can soar above everyday political fare.
Romney, like Obama next week, must rise to that challenge. Unlike the president, he now has the advantage of a running mate who is inspiring rather than cringe-inducing.
Will the Man on the Wedding Cake Come Magically to Life?
Can Romney get past the disadvantages of wealth, a happy marriage, an inspirational hairline, a beautiful and devoted wife (who delivered a terrific speech Tuesday night), and five handsome sons to finally make something of himself? Whether driven by envy, the relentless personal attacks by Democrats this campaign season, or his own managerial style of delivery, Romney is often seen as the man on the wedding cake or Uncle Pennybags in Monopoly.
It didn’t help that he had to share the stage in the primary season with the spicier Republican brands of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry.
Given the way the perception of “the guy who fired you” has hardened in people’s minds, viewers will naturally wonder whether the stage in Tampa can magically give life to the Wedding Cake Man when he makes his way to the podium.
In person, Romney is a poised, somewhat careful speaker. But he is not a boring one. His mind, and—unlike the two Bush presidents—his discourse is fluid, disciplined, organized, and persuasive. It’s true that he’s not comfortable selling himself. But he possesses an essential ingredient of both a successful communicator and inspiring politician: he is true to himself. Whatever one feels about Romney’s changing positions, he gives the impression that he will not compromise his essential personality to try to be something and someone he’s not.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson told the story recently of Bush preparing for his acceptance speech at the 2000 convention. The future president told Gerson, “Win or lose, people will know who I am from this speech.”