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.
He laid out his thesis: That the president, having raised Americans' hopes, had sadly let us all down. And then he did the thing he had to do, the thing Mitt Romney is so notoriously bad at that he looms as a sinister cipher in many minds: He talked about himself.
"We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan," he said. "That might have seemed unusual or out of place, but I really don't remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to." As he talked about his parents' marriage, his voice grew thick with emotion, and on the big screen you could see his small, dark eyes get shiny and red around the edges. "When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way," he said. "I can still hear her saying in her beautiful voice, 'Why should women have any less say than men, about the great decisions facing our nation?'" A clumsy segue to yet another ham-handed pitch for the women's vote, perhaps, but in a rare feat for Romney, the line was actually better in the delivery than on paper.
The same went for Romney's description of Bain, which he managed, for the first time, to convincingly portray as a plucky little firm made good, and which he tied to the convention's No. 1 theme, the accusation that the president disdains the private sector. "In America, we celebrate success, we don't apologize for it," he said, as the delegates rose to their feet and roared. "We weren't always successful at Bain, but no one ever is in the real world of business. That's what this president doesn't seem to understand. Business and growing jobs is about taking risk, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always striving."
In what struck me as the speech's best line, Romney contrasted Obama's lofty, unfulfilled goals with his own, more human promise: "President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet," he said. "My promise is to help you and your family." The line infuriated liberals who saw it as mocking environmentalism, and maybe it will offend voters for that, too. But it neatly encapsulated the theme of disappointment turning a page to hope.
These were the strongest parts of Romney's speech, which was fortunate for him, since they were the most central to his vision. As he veered into policy -- his oft-repeated five-point plan, a clumsy foray into foreign policy, quite a bit of booing from the audience -- the speech became scattered and list-y. He wrapped up with an appeal to unity and a paean to the future, and the packed convention floor seemed genuinely thrilled as the red, white, and blue balloons fell from the ceiling.
It wasn't the best speech anyone ever gave, but it was almost certainly the best speech Mitt Romney ever gave. One speech alone will not vault him to the presidency. But at the end of it, Romney the human had come into sharper focus, and for that, he must be judged a success.
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