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Mitt Romney Convention Speech Goal: Rescue His Character

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will speak at the Republican National Convention Thursday night.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will speak at the Republican National Convention Thursday night.

TAMPA, Fla. -- At a Frank Luntz focus group on Sunday, the pollster asked the nearly two-dozen voters to describe Mitt Romney in one word. The responses came in rapid succession:

"Articulate."
"A little out of touch." (After a long pause)
"Success."
"Experience."
"Out of touch."
"Educated."
"I'm not sure I trust him." (Another long pause)
"A leader."
"Bland."
"Don’t Trust Him."

And among those reactions -- from a group that mostly voted for Barack Obama in 2008 -- the negative ones show Romney's challenge: Voters who might be persuaded to abandon the president don't feel like they know Romney, and don't trust him.

The former Massachusetts governor and former private equity executive has trouble opening up. It's not just that he won't talk about himself. To put it that way makes it sound like he refuses to humble brag. It's different. It's that he won't reveal himself. It's not part of his ethic.

But this old-school tendency has opened the door for President Obama's reelection campaign to fill in the gaps where the Romney campaign believes its candidate's true motives are. The Democrats have done a masterful job of portraying the 65-year-old Romney as malevolent and malicious. At the very least, they have introduced doubts about whether Romney can be trusted.

The Romney campaign knows this. So does Romney's wife, Ann, who told the nation simply, "You can trust Mitt," in her primetime speech Tuesday night.

Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), hit that same point in his speech Wednesday night.

"Some people can't be dragged down by the usual cheap tactics because their character, ability and plain decency are so obvious, and ladies and gentleman, that is Mitt Romney," Paul said.

One of the most important things for Romney in his speech Thursday night may be less what he says, and more how he says it.

"He needs to match Ann Romney's level of comfort in delivering it," said Tony Fratto, who worked in President George W. Bush's White House. "That's more important than the words."

The audience in the convention hall will be important mostly to the degree that its enthusiasm for Romney's speech carries him along, buoys him, and improves his performance in a way that translates through the TV to those undecided voters in Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and here in Florida.

Romney has shown he can deliver an impassioned speech. His remarks on July 17 in Irwin, Pa., were a high point in his campaign. That was the first time Romney jumped on Obama's "you didn't build that" comment. It was also just a few days after Obama's deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said Romney might be guilty of a felony crime if he was misleading on federal forms about when he left private equity.

No one is asking Romney to "open up" or get soft and fuzzy. It's more important, probably, that he appear presidential. But Americans do want to believe that their commander in chief gets what they're going through. Focus groups, polls and interviews this reporter has conducted with numerous voters bear that out.

A new Gallup poll out Thursday morning showed Obama with a huge 54 percent to 31 percent advantage in who is most likable, and a 16-point edge (52 percent to 36 percent) in who "cares about the needs of people like you." But perhaps more importantly, Romney also was behind 12 points, 48 percent to 36 percent, in who is "honest and trustworthy."

Romney's friends shake their head at this last number. Romney, to them, is not only normal. He is also virtuous. Many find him inspirational.

And much of the convention program on Thursday night is aimed at deconstructing the Democratic myth of who Romney is, and building up a new story. Romney's oldest son, Tagg, said Wednesday at a Politico event that Romney adviser Russ Schriefer asked him for the names of people who could be "character witnesses" to speak about their experiences with Romney. Tagg came up with 20 names and Schriefer picked the best ones.

The Romney campaign thinks that its guy will wear well. As the country finally starts to tune in, and more people get to know him, the more they will see him for who he is.

"People are paying attention, and when they start to pay attention, we feel that works for us," said Beth Myers, Romney's long time adviser, at an ABC News/Yahoo panel this week.

But for that to happen, Romney needs to let the country get to know him. At least a little.

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