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Subtle makeover for Republican hopeful

Convention goers enjoy their pizza lunch in front of a large video screen showing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann, during the second session of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 28, 2012. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

TAMPA, Florida: Mitt Romney will get a carefully scripted convention makeover as the Republican White House hopeful aims to close the yawning likability gap between himself and President Barack Obama.

Wife Ann led the way with a prime time speech Tuesday to a packed convention center in Tampa, Florida designed to show a more human side to a man whose ram-rod straight bearing is lampooned as too stiff, too perfect.

During his bitter Republican primary campaign, the immaculately coifed, multimillionaire businessman demonstrated a tin ear with a string of wealth-related gaffes that made it all too easy for opponents to portray him as out of touch with ordinary Americans.

“Romney seems to be suffering some real difficulty in coming across as that friendly and likable person,” Charles Franklin, political science professor at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and co-founder of Pollster.com, told AFP.

“Back in 2000 it was Al Gore who was unusually stiff and had a very hard time coming off as casual with voters under practically any circumstance. John Kerry in 2004 also had some problems seeming like an average guy.”

If anyone can reboot Romney’s image and prevent him from ending up on the scrap-heap of presidential also-rans it is his wife Ann, whose affable persona has served as an important asset in relaxing her more socially awkward husband.

Romney flew to Tampa Tuesday – two days earlier than expected – to hear her crucial pitch.

The couple’s visibly squeaky-clean and loving family life – they have been married for 43 years and have five sons and 18 grandchildren – is a clear vote-winner and will be trumpeted throughout the convention.

“We know what he’s all about and I think people will really get a chance to see he’s a great family man, he’s a great leader,” Matt, one of Romney’s sons, told ABC News Monday. His brother Craig was scheduled to address the convention.

Before Romney’s acceptance speech Thursday, ex-Olympians will take to the stage to remind Americans that he saved the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics from bankruptcy.

But while most polls show Romney trumping Obama on the crucial question of whom voters trust more to handle the flagging U.S. economy, he trails the president badly in terms of likability.

A Gallup survey released Friday showed that 54 percent of those polled found Obama more likable, compared to just 31 percent answering the question in favor of Romney.

Where some people see a skilled manager with the business acumen to turn around the American economy, others see a cutthroat venture capitalist who profited while workers lost their jobs.

During the primaries and the full-on presidential campaign, opponents have made hay out of attacking Romney for his tax secrecy and the manner in which he amassed his vast wealth as CEO of the private equity firm Bain Capital.

A black-and-white photograph of a young Romney posing with Bain Capital colleagues with dollars bulging out of their pockets has done him no favors at a time when many Americans are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.

Ill-judged comments about firing people and his wife’s “couple” of Cadillacs – and a baffling decision to propose a $10,000 bet with Texas Governor Rick Perry during a televised debate – reinforced the notion that Romney is out of touch with the economic concerns of the average American voter.

If the 65-year-old former Massachusetts governor wants to turn this around he must focus on developing empathy, analysts say.

“Romney just doesn’t connect with people. His campaign needs to warm him up, if possible, using the infomercial we call a convention,” said political analyst Larry Sabato.

Franklin pointed to former Democratic president Bill Clinton as the prime example of a candidate who skillfully used the party nominating convention to remold an image that had taken a severe battering in the 1992 primaries.

“With the video, ‘The Man From Hope,’ and his convention speech – that image was significantly rebooted,” he said.

“That I think is Romney’s challenge. Through a combination of other people’s testimony, Ann Romney’s speech in particular, whatever videos they may produce, and Romney’s speech itself, can he speak to voters and have them look at him fresh?”

David Carr of the New York Times put it more bluntly: “Can Mitt Romney shake off his plastic, sitcom-dad persona and imitate a human being?” he asked.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 29, 2012, on page 11.

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