Republican convention offers Romney spotlight to sell himself to public

Mitt Romney hopes to seize the opportunity to reintroduce himself to a public that has yet to warm to the multimillionaire former businessman. The convention in Florida may prove short on surprises, however.

A technician prepares balloons to be dropped from the ceiling at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida on Friday. The convention starts Monday.
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WASHINGTON // When the Tampa Bay Times Arena opens its doors for the Republican National Convention tomorrow, it will mark the culmination of a half-decade effort by Willard Mitt Romney to become the party's nominee for the US presidency.

An unsuccessful primary candidate in 2008, Mr Romney will hope to take full advantage of the spotlight as Americans traditionally begin to tune in to the presidential campaign during the party conventions.

He undoutably hopes to seize the opportunity to reintroduce himself to a public that has yet to warm to the multimillionaire former businessman.

The convention in Florida may prove short on surprises, however.

Mr Romney chose Minnesota congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate two weeks ago, foregoing the excitement that surrounded the 2008 convention when John McCain left it until a few days before the party gathering to unveil his vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin.

With the delegate count secured long ago and a tightly scripted programme in place, there are also likely to be few false notes struck, said Richard Benedetto, a professor of journalism at American University. He recalled the manner in which Ted Kennedy took his competition with the then president, Jimmy Carter, all the way to the 1980 Democratic convention and upstaged him there with a better speech,

"They don't have anyone going up there in prime time who is likely to mess up the message," said Mr Benedetto, a former White House correspondent who covered every national convention between 1972 and 2008.

"They are basically putting together an infomercial for the party and the candidate."

Nevertheless, the convention is more important than simply sounding a starting gun toward November's election. Florida is a key swing state that Republicans are pushing hard to win back from Mr Obama, who prevailed there in 2008.

With 15,000 members of the media set to attend, the convention is an opportunity for Republicans to present a united front and rally the party faithful.

Neck and neck in the nationwide polls with Barack Obama, the US president, Mr Romney has been trying to focus on Mr Obama's record on the economy. With an unemployment rate that refuses to budge from above 8 per cent, the president is seen as vulnerable on the issue that polls say is the most important to voters.

But last week Mr Romney had to focus on other topics as he was forced on the defensive over his party's position on women's health and abortion rights after a Republican congressman suggested abortion need not be allowed in rape cases since "legitimate rape" rarely resulted in pregnancy.

The choice of Mr Ryan was widely seen as support for the congressman's budget proposals and its deep cuts in social welfare programs, including health care for the elderly, leading to unwanted criticism.

Avoiding such diversions will be crucial as Republicans seek to spend this week talking mostly about the economy, said Jeffrey Weiss, a Washington-based pollster and veteran of several Republican presidential campaigns.

"They want to focus and maximise the potential that Romney and Ryan bring while avoiding any pitfalls", Mr Weiss said, suggesting that Mr Ryan, 42, and other young Republican leaders, such as Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, will lead the charge against Mr Obama, allowing Mr Romney to stay above the fray.

The convention could also help Mr Romney address an image problem. He remains a mystery to many Americans, surprisingly for someone, who, as the son of a former Michigan governor and as the governor of Massachusetts, has spent much of his life in the public eye.

While polls suggest Americans would trust Mr Romney over Mr Obama to right the American economy, they also suggest Americans don't much like Mr Romney. His often waffling positions on health care and gun control as well as his refusal to reveal his tax returns have not helped his cause.

A recent Gallup poll found that 54 per cent found Mr Obama more likeable than Mr Romney compared to 31 per cent, a gap that has remained fairly consistent over the past six months.

The convention will, therefore, be an opportunity for Mr Romney to sell himself to Republicans who are begining to rally behind him and to a sceptical American public at large

Mr Weiss suggested that differences between moderates in the Republican Party and right wing Tea Party activists have been "patched up" and that Mr Romney will be looking for a "bounce" in the poll at the end of the week.

"I have to assume we will come out of it pretty strong," Mr Weiss said.

At least until the following week. That's when Democrats have their own convention - the party of the presidency holds its convention last. Mr Obama will expect a bounce of his own then, and a race that has been close for months promises to continue that way.