TAMPA, Fla — Mitt Romney gave Americans permission to vote against President Barack Obama Thursday night, and the beginnings of a reason to vote for him.
His speech at the Republican National Convention here deftly deflated some of the tension that has dogged Romney throughout the election — and, indeed, his political career. But it also marked his first real pivot toward November and toward making a case to the people who will decide this election: Swing voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008.
After months of playing defense on his private equity record, Romney devoted several confident paragraphs of his address to telling the success stories of Bain Capital — drawing applause just by mentioning the name of the company Democrats have tried to turn pejorative.
“Some of us has this idea that if we really believed our advice was helping companies, we should invest in companies; we should ben on ourselves and on our advice,” Romney said. “So we started a new business called Bain Capital.”
“They took their best shot, and they overreached with absurd false claims,” said one Romney aide of the Obama campaign on Bain. “It gives us an opportunity to lay out the truth.”
The remarks followed a series of emotional moments, including the recounting of Romney counseling families in his Mormon ward and helping a dying boy draft a will. Tears flowed down the faces of many in the audience, as did the walls that Romney put up around his faith. A 10-minute introductory video showed Romney with his family, when he is his most natural.
Romney delivered the best line of the night, as he moved to diffuse any lasting tension his religion has created among Evangelical Republicans.
“I had thought about asking my church’s pension fund to invest, but I didn’t,” Romney said. “I figured it was bad enough that I might lose my investors’ money, but I didn’t want to go to hell too.”
Republicans roared with laughter, and with relief: Romney had gone there, and had taken the edge off a whispered conversation that has dogged his two campaigns, serving as a point of stress both to his staff and to his closest supporters.
But the most important line of the speech was when Romney tapped into the unmistakable emotional drop-off since Nov. 4, 2008, telling voters that their votes for Obama shouldn’t be their proudest moment of the last four years.
“Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I'd ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”
The Obama’s difficulty in recapturing the magic of 2008 has been reflected in his own poll numbers, but until last night, Romney hasn’t targeted his message at the disgruntled or abandoned voters of four years ago.
Indeed, Romney came into his own last night. The speech was a completion of the evolution Romney began with the selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, offering Americans a choice this fall that is greater than a simple referendum on Obama’s policies.
Romney is branding himself as the humble and capable fixer, a message supported by his newfound desire to talk openly about his career in the private sector. He still faces a skeptical and conflicted public, and close poll numbers; but in Tampa for one of the first times this summer, he and his supporters seemed to glimpse a path to the White House.