In a night filled with edgy, resentful rhetoric, the nominee's wife spoke of love.
TAMPA -- As the hurricane made landfall, hitting Louisiana with 80-mile-an-hour winds, the possible future lieutenant governor of Delaware was speaking from the stage of the Republican convention, voicing her disapproval of an administration that believes in "blue-ribbon panels." She had come to the stage following a country band playing a rousing, politically charged anthem called "I Built It." (Chorus: "I bought it/ A business I could call my own/ I built it/ No boss 'cept the one at home.")
That theme, a defiantly decontextualized reversal of a free-enterprise-disdaining comment by President Obama, would be repeated endlessly, by speaker after speaker and in videos featuring hardy, individualistic business owners (a sweet-corn farmer, a candy-store proprietor) in high dudgeon. Rick Santorum deepened the tone of resentment with a speech about making welfare recipients work; Artur Davis, the former Alabama congressman and former Democrat, added an edge of disillusionment. On the floor, "convention floor whips" in earpieces and Romney-logo mesh trucker hats could be seen exhorting half-attentive delegates to rise and cheer.
And then Ann Romney took the stage.
The candidate's wife wore a high-necked, belted red satin dress and clasped both hands to her face, briefly, emotionally. She spoke quickly and a bit softly at first, punctuated with a nervous laugh. "I love you WOM-en!" she cried, with a distinctly Oprah-ish lilt. "And I hear your voices!"
On paper, it was a long and rather hokey speech, the directness of its appeal to women voters embarrassingly overt. ("Tonight, we salute you and sing your praises! I'm not sure if men really understand this...") But by halfway through, as the content of the speech became more personal, the crowd grew rapt. The delegates on the floor stood up and didn't sit back down.
"All at once I'm 22 years old, with a baby and a husband who's going to business school and law school at the same time, and I can tell you, probably like every other girl who finds herself in a new life far from family and friends, with a new baby and a new husband, that it dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into," she said. The struggles weren't overdone, and she whisked briskly past the part about her struggle with multiple sclerosis and cancer. It was, she insisted, not a "storybook marriage," but a "real marriage."
And though Ann Romney began by saying she would make a speech about love, the argument she made for her husband ended up being one made, if tenderly, on the basis of competence and trust. "No one will work harder," she said. "No one will care more. No one will move heaven and earth like Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live." And later: "This man will not fail. This man will not let us down."
As she finished, the crowd roared, "My Girl" played, and Mitt Romney strode onto the stage, gazing into her eyes and pecking her demurely on the lips. He turned to the crowd, and the word on his lips was unmistakable: "Amazing."
The night was not over -- the keynote speaker, Chris Christie, would be next, in a hectoring speech that was oddly explicit in its repudiation of Ann Romney's warmth. ("I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved," he said.) But it was her speech that would linger in the air as the delegates filed out.
Ann Romney had an impossible task: She couldn't, in a single speech, fix her husband's personality deficits, much less his glaring deficit with the female vote. But she did, for the moment, brighten an otherwise a dour and out-of-sorts convention. And she may also have accomplished something that nobody anticipated: not just having people take a new look at her husband, but making them take a new look at her.