Tampa, Fla. — Mitt Romney will not take the stage until Thursday, but the GOP’s long-planned push to introduce its nominee begins in earnest early this week. A series of speakers, from family members to surrogates, will talk glowingly about Romney’s biography, which has rarely been the campaign’s focus.
According to convention staffers, each night’s official theme is a variation of Romney’s economic-heavy message. But Romney aides say the contender’s personal story will frequently be the subtext. “Right now, people need to know more about him,” says Charlie Black, a Romney adviser. “His background will be emphasized.”
Carefully chosen anecdotes from Romney’s days at Bain Capital and the Winter Olympics will be interspersed with critiques of President Obama. Tuesday’s speakers, such as New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte and Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, will talk up his smarts and his character. And on Tuesday evening, Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, will discuss Romney’s steadiness as a husband and father.
“You will see every night a different biographical slice of Mitt’s life come to life,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, recently told the Washington Post. “We obviously see it as a platform for more deeply examining Mitt and Ann’s life.”
Since an approaching tropical storm cancelled Monday’s festivities, Tuesday will be the first day of “Meet Mitt” programming. The slate will also include speeches by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and the convention’s keynote speech by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. All of these speakers, a Romney adviser says, have been given clear guidelines about how to tout Romney’s attributes.
Of course, building a biographical narrative at the start of a national convention is routine. But for Romney, this aspect may be critical, GOP operatives say, since many voters are still unfamiliar with the career of the former Massachusetts governor and Harvard Business School graduate.
“This is now Romney’s Republican party and everyone is going to have to articulate his strengths,” says Ed Rollins, a former Reagan adviser. “Before Romney speaks, there will be a lot of good, partisan people at the podium, and they’ll have to create a warm feeling for those watching on television, not just for the 20,000 screaming Republicans in the arena.”
The convention stage at the Tampa Bay Times Forum will serve that purpose. According to the New York Times, the stage is decorated with 13 video screens, all of which are framed by dark wood. Russ Schriefer, a senior Romney media adviser, told the Times that he wants viewers to feel as if they were “looking into someone’s living room.”
Beyond the Tampa aesthetics, Romney’s campaign has quietly laid the groundwork for the convention’s biographical undercurrent. Last Friday, Romney wrote a rare op-ed about his Bain Capital tenure for the Wall Street Journal, and in a Sunday interview with Parade, he spoke openly about his Mormon faith.
Mike Murphy, a former Romney adviser, understands the campaign’s urge to share Romney’s story, but he hopes that the nominee will focus on his vision, not his résumé. “It’s fine to fill up the convention with that [biographical] material, but his speech has to paint the picture about how he will get the country back to work,” Murphy says. “For most people, the other stuff is mostly trivial, like watching the Weather Channel.”
Romney, for his part, told the Wall Street Journal last week that he is not a natural storyteller, and that as important as biography is to the political process, he does not want the convention to use his as “a way to personalize me like I’m a piece of meat.”
“People who’ve hired me in the past have been pleased that they did,” Romney told the Journal. “And so, I’ll describe my views and issues and concerns, but I don’t have a plan to take everybody to my childhood home and say, ‘Here’s where I rode my bicycle.’”
But Romney’s advisers know that their boss’s tendency to stay mum about his family, faith, and career cannot be the convention’s approach. The latest polls show a close race between Romney and the president, and in order to make the most of the convention coverage, the personal will become the political, at least for one week.
Two Republicans familiar with Romney’s campaign say the former governor has often resisted attempts to talk more about family or faith-related topics on the trail, but when it comes to Tampa, he has been more willing to let his advisers highlight his backstory. Later in the week, testimonies from fellow Mormons about Romney’s role as a pastor in his church, for example, will be part of the official convention program.
Still, the tension between Romney’s buttoned-up nature and the necessity of revealing his personal side is a must-watch factor, Rollins says. “These things have become four-day television specials,” he says. “There are no more battles over delegates or the platform. But you still need to make sure that the 15,000 credentialed reporters tell the story you want.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.