TAMPA -- The first drops of Tropical Storm Isaac were already coming down when I spoke on the street in the Channel District here to Charlie Black, a Republican who has been involved in more races in Florida -- and elsewhere -- than just about anybody else in the business.
"We really need a good couple of weeks coming out of here,” he said, in his usual matter-of-fact way. “We aren’t quite where we need to be.”
He’s right. Besides Hispanics and seniors, the two obvious demographic groups Romney needs to woo, there is a third he needs as well: women in the swing states of the Midwest, voters who, as President Obama once said, tend to cling to their guns (a hunting rifle) and their religion (which in the Midwest is often Catholic).
“I’m a Catholic deer hunter,” Romney's running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proudly proclaimed in Michigan earlier this week. That said it all.
August hasn’t been the month the Romney campaign wanted or expected. There have been distractions ranging from Bain to income taxes to Medicare to a “birther” joke gone awry. His economic pitch hasn’t gone as well as hoped, not because people admire President Obama’s stewardship, but because they have yet to warm to the wealthy, awkward, distant persona of the alternative.
One reason is language.
“It took me months to get them to stop talking about 'median income,'" said another GOP consultant, who declined to be named because he was speaking about the private advice he gave. "They kept talking in economist jargon. I said, just say 'take-home pay!'”
The mistakes and distractions have left Romney close –- but only close.
Even before Isaac joined the party, early-arriving Republicans here, both inside and outside the campaign, were in a grind-it-out mood -- not grim but not ebullient, either -- befitting the mean, slogging nature and pace of the 2012 campaign overall.
Mitt Romney is in a virtual tie with the president in the popularity contest, but the route to 270 electoral votes remains much trickier and tougher for the man who will be formally nominated here.
The selection of Ryan helped shore up a reluctant conservative base, giving Romney added leeway to muscle Ron Paul out of the way, and it could give the GOP ticket the swing state of Wisconsin.
But Romney got no national bounce, no real buzz, even though Ryan, at 42, is the first of his generation to win a place on a national ticket.
In the national popularity contest, Romney led twice last fall, was tied in May, and may well end up with his first noticeable lead after this week’s convention, though it is unlikely to be a big one.
In a race this tight and in a country this divided, there are no big bounces. It’s more like dropping a bowling ball into a sandbox.
Operatives in both campaigns pretty much agree on the states that belong on and off the battleground list. Pennsylvania, for example, is off for now, presumed to be in Obama’s column. North Carolina seems headed off the list and into the Romney column, unless the Democratic convention in Charlotte somehow turns things around.
As important as the swing states, if not more so, are the demographic targets. Along with Hispanics and seniors, a third group is key. Call them the Mrs. Deer Hunters.
Michael Cimino’s classic movie, “The Deer Hunter,” depicts the post-Vietnam War trauma of the lives of young steelworker families in western Pennsylvania. These voters and millions like them remain key to the culture and politics in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and, even though it is not a Great Lakes state, Iowa. It’s the Big Ten of the Electoral College map.
The titular Deer Hunter in the movie was Russian Orthodox, but when Ryan reminded the Michigan crowd of his own Catholicism, he was invoking a predominant institutional force in the region, at a time when the overall Catholic vote is closely divided between the two presidential candidates.
These are voters who supported Obama enough in 2008 to allow him to win all of those states. (In Pennsylvania he had the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers –- now the ambassador to Ireland -– to help his cause.)
To oversimplify, but only slightly, Obama has lost the Deer Hunters themselves. White men, including the Deer Hunters, strongly support the Romney-Ryan ticket, by a whopping 58-34 percent margin in the most recent Gallup Poll.
But Romney has not won over their wives, which is why both campaigns have been holding literally dozens of focus groups with middle-class, undecided women, especially in these battleground states.
The Romney camp is convinced that with Ryan on the ticket, they can win not only Wisconsin, but also Iowa. The key would then be always-pivotal Ohio, and perhaps similar voters in rural Virginia.
The issues? Jobs and the economy, of course, and on those it's a very tough sell for Obama.
There has been an uptick in real personal household income -- a “very positive development,” according to Professor Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt, a leading expert on how economic growth, or the lack of it, affects presidential elections. But overall economic conditions –- and the history of them in the president's tenure –- remain bleak: unemployment over 8 percent, losses in household income, half of homeowners under age 40 “underwater” on their mortgages.
A recent focus group of female undecided voters in Ohio was asked by NBC News poll-takers to give a meteorological description both of the economy and their own situations. They all used words such as “stormy,” “cloudy,” “rainy” and so on. No sun anywhere.
If Romney can’t win those voters over on the economy, what else does he have? Class resentment and culture. The Romney campaign has found that the Mrs. Deer Hunters respond strongly to the idea, hotly denied by the president, that Obama wants to end work requirements for welfare. And many of these Catholic voters are open to the argument that Obama's health care reform law is unfairly forcing Catholic hospitals to provide abortion and contraceptive services to their staff.
It’s no accident that the speaking line-up here at the Republican convention is heavily weighted toward prominent Catholics, not only Ryan but Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia. Romney has to hope that the Deer Hunter families are watching, because the convention will be speaking to them as directly as it can.