The Romney Regulars Speak Up for Their Man

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All week long they tried to humanize the somewhat formal GOP nominee. But it's the party they really need to work on.

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Reuters

TAMPA -- The final night of the heavily scripted Republican National Convention provided a series of surprises as novice speakers during the early portion of the evening outshone the political and Hollywood stars brought on to introduce Mitt Romney during prime time. It was an uneven evening that stutter-stepped its way toward the former Massachusetts governor's acceptance speech, each powerfully resonant or emotionally uplifting segment immediately undermined by turns to negativity and boos or protests in the convention hall.

It was a program intended to provide America with a more personal view of Mitt Romney, his Mormon faith, his large family, and his good works as a man and businessman. And it did that quite successfully, as Grant Bennett, a former assistant to Romney when he served as a Mormon bishop in Massachusetts, and Pam Finlayson, a friend of the Romneys from their Massachusetts church whom he helped through a difficult time with a premature daughter, spoke to Romney's personal commitment to his co-religionists.

Their prim, plain, formal manners and subdued but deeply felt endorsements of Romney's character did perhaps more than anything else all week to give insight into a lifelong source of strength and values for Romney, as well as the operations of a faith community largely unfamiliar to most Americans. And the speeches also, critically, showed him as a man capable of not just relating to but having deep friendships with people from different walks of life, after a week that relentlessly drove home the message that he is a successful elite, surrounded by other people of achievement.

The daily emphasis on Romney's success, and the insistence that we value it, was intended as a counter to the drumbeat of attacks by the Obama campaign on Romney's business record, but by convention's end it had the odd effect of making him seem even more out of touch. The positive view of the message was that the Republican Party does not believe that the economy is a zero-sum game or that the wealth of one diminishes others, but instead wants to build a nation that rewards entrepreneurship and dogged individual determination. But the downside of the parade of governors and senators and businessmen and even Olympians talking about the value of success and achievement was that it painted Romney's GOP as the party of people who are better than you, and possibly unaware of how unusual their lives are, since it it not given to everyone to be that extraordinary. Government must work for ordinary people of modest ambition and education, too, after all. And no matter how we enjoy tales of movement in America, of immigrants and people of color and the children of driven but not well-situated parents who thanks to their love made something of themselves, we know also that most of us don't actually move that far from our economic point of origin.

Every moment of uplift and insight Thursday night was followed by a slam-back-to-Earth instance of sourness.

The spellbinding appearances of Romney's Mormon allies were followed by another airing of a video of edited Obama remarks ("You didn't built that!") which drew three rounds of boos from the audience, breaking the sense of emotional momentum on behalf of Romney in the hall and immediately reminding that whatever image Romney was seeking to create for himself Thursday, he has for months fed and fed on a strain of deep disdain for the president among his fellow partisans. And that was what it was like all night -- every moment of uplift and insight was followed by a slam-back-to-Earth instance of sourness.

The well-produced biographical video that showed Romney's early family years wasn't aired in prime time, and was soon followed by the nationally televised and disrespectful performance of Clint Eastwood talking to an imaginary Obama and a real, empty chair.

Romney's nomination acceptance speech is already being criticized as a vacuous or Oprahfied bid to broaden his appeal. But to the extent that he was trying to reach out to disaffected Obama voters and the potentially persuadable in the first two-thirds of his speech with personal stories and paeans to women's leadership, the fact that his windup once again called forth audience boos against the president -- start at around the 26:45 mark in the video of his speech if you want to hear them -- drove home the point that whatever he says, he's not fully in control of his party.

Paul Ryan on Tuesday night said that America has a choice because the time for choosing is near. But Romney too has a choice. He's going to have decide if he wants to run a positive campaign that reaches out and tries to bring new people into the GOP fold -- or the negative, base-oriented one he has so far. In Tampa, he awkwardly tried to have it both ways.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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