Seeking to define himself to voters at long last, Romney showcases the two most complicated parts of his profile: Mormonism and Bain Capital.
TAMPA -- Paradoxically, the bar was high for Mitt Romney's speech to the Republican convention not because much was expected of him but because it was not.
In six years of campaigning for the presidency, he has managed to leave such a hazy and sour impression in the minds of the mass of American voters that he is barely regarded as a human being. In the days and hours leading up to Romney's big moment, delegate after delegate at the convention told me, with a glint of panicked hope in their eyes, that in Romney's speech he would finally have a chance to introduce himself -- to seem real, to be understood.
To succeed, Romney would have to give a speech so convincing that it would wash away all the preconceptions, cementing an image of himself so robust in voters' minds that the version of him in his opponents' attacks would clash with what they knew and fall flat. That, surely, was why the signs the crowd waved said "BELIEVE!" The whole project was to create, for the first time, a Romney to believe in.
To do that, Romney took a risk. The program showcased the two most difficult and avoided parts of his biography -- his religion and his business career. Was it really wise, I wondered, to make his major statement of self, in essence, "I am a Mormon who worked in private equity"? But the succession of speakers from Romney's church were genuinely moving, putting to shame the parade of politicians who had taken the stage previously. When a Massachusetts woman named Pam Finlayson told how Romney brought over Thanksgiving dinner when her daughter was undergoing brain surgery -- and how he called, 26 years later, in the middle of a presidential campaign, with condolences at her death -- the audience hushed with emotion.
The pro-Bain campaign was a bit less successful. Bob White, Romney's ubiquitous friend from his Bain days, spoke mostly in generalities about what he called an "investment firm." Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples, ruined a potentially good tale of an entrepreneur with a dream by veering instead into a talk-radio-worthy partisan rant against Romney's enemies who "just don't get it!" And a parade of former Olympic athletes, while inspiring and patriotic, just didn't seem relevant.
At this point, something must be said about Clint Eastwood, the 82-year-old Hollywood star whose endorsement was deemed to be so potent and desirable that he was allowed to take the stage totally without a script, accompanied by an empty chair. The chair turned out to be a stand-in for an imaginary President Obama, with whom Eastwood proceeded to have a dialogue. The result was surely the most surreal moment in modern political convention history, about which there is little to be said except that you must see it for yourself. Afterward, a Romney campaign aide dryly told reporters Eastwood's remarks had been "ad-libbed."
Fortunately for Romney, the next speaker was the Republican Party's hands-down greatest public speaker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who made a remarkable recovery from the Eastwood madness. And then it was Romney's turn.