Now, with the Republican National Convention that opens here Monday, Romney has a chance to fight back and to reframe the race with 70 days to go.
Thousands of delegates, donors, and journalists arrived Saturday to a steamy city overhung with gray clouds pushed north by Tropical Storm Isaac, projected to hit the Florida Keys on Sunday as a hurricane. As workers put finishing touches on the massive stage in the Tampa Bay Times Forum arena, party officials announced that the convention would open Monday but recess until the next afternoon to make way for the storm.
For all of his challenges on "likability," and with women and Hispanic voters, Romney has an opening to exploit this week. He is still running neck-and-neck with Obama in both national polls and surveys of battleground states.
And once he formally accepts the nomination Thursday night, he and running mate Paul Ryan will no longer be bound by the primaries' spending limits and can begin using their hefty advantage over Obama in general-election cash.
Romney's strategists plan to use the occasion, perhaps their last chance to convey an unfiltered message, to try to convince voters that the former private-equity executive has the economic skills the nation needs to get out of its doldrums, whether they love the guy or not. Advisers also want to use the four days of convention programming to humanize Romney, who has found it hard to connect with people on the hustings.
"You also look at some polls that show Gov. Romney as being a far better steward of the economy than President Obama," said Russ Schriefer, a top strategist who is overseeing the convention for the campaign.
"We think at the end of the day people are going to be more concerned about jobs, their livelihoods and making ends meet - that's what this election is going to be about, the kitchen-table issues," Schriefer said.
The first night's theme, he said, was to be the failures of the Obama administration. Schriefer said, "You need to lay down the predicate and make the case" for change.
"They can't just take on Obama," said Republican media strategist Michael Hudome, an adviser to John McCain in 2008. "People like Obama. Romney needs to be the mechanic. You know, people may not like their mechanic, but they need him when they have to get their car fixed. Whether or not people would invite him over for dinner, at the end, who cares?"
With such goals in mind, much of the convention is designed to show off Romney's qualifications, including job-creating success stories from his time at Bain Capital, and his role in turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City - complete with testimonials from athletes.
Much of Tuesday's session will center on the president's "you didn't build that" comment, in which he said government investments in things like roads and education were in part responsible for the success of businesses. Though Democrats contend its context has been twisted, the comment has become a rallying cry for Romney and the GOP, who say Obama was betraying disdain for entrepreneurs. Speakers will include small-business owners sharing their stories.
Yet his strategists cannot ignore the personal side of Romney, who has to address other challenges, including the so-called gender gap, with Obama leading by a wide margin among women voters in polls, and a GOP deficit with Latino voters.
"Just 'being Romney' hasn't worked that well so far," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Not only does Romney need to make the case he has the know-how to lead an economic turnaround of the nation, "he's also got to reassure women that all the discussion about abortion and contraception in the last several days doesn't mean he's going to roll back the rights of women."
Last week, those social issues drowned out the economic message of the Romney-Ryan team for several days after the GOP Senate nominee in Missouri, Todd Akin, said women who are victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant. Romney and much of the Republican establishment demanded Akin withdraw, but he has refused. Jillson said Romney also will need to reach out to Hispanics - who "heard all that harsh rhetoric about illegal immigrants and deportation in the Republican primaries."
Ann Romney, the candidate's wife, will speak about her husband's character on Tuesday - moved to that night, which also features the keynote speaker, Gov. Christie of New Jersey, because the major networks were not planning to air the Monday session in which she was originally scheduled to speak.
The candidate will be joined by children and grandchildren, and the campaign plans to broach the subject of Romney's Mormon faith - in particular, the pastoral work he did as a lay bishop in the church, which he has generally avoided discussing.
"We will be having several people who he worked with through his church that he helped in different times in their lives," Schriefer said. "We'll have someone who followed Gov. Romney as a leader in the church, who will talk about what it was like to fill Gov. Romney's shoes in that role."
It is not known if Romney will mention his father when he accepts the nomination, but memories of the man he has called his role model must surely loom large. George Romney, a moderate Republican who was governor of Michigan, ran for president in 1968 only to see his campaign flame out in controversy over the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is not standing down. The president plans to campaign in Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia during the opposition's party in Tampa. In Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, the Democrats are staging bus tours this week, highlighting what they say is the certain damage the middle class would suffer under such Romney policies as a plan to replace guaranteed Medicare health benefits with a fixed amount of money for future retirees to buy private insurance.
For its part, Tampa welcomed visitors with U.S. flags, banners, billboards - and an uncommonly large number of strip clubs. One, the Doll House, advertised a special "Keynote Undress" program for Tuesday night.
Vice President Biden had been scheduled to be here, too, to confront the GOP - a breach of the traditional convention cease-fire. But his trip was canceled Friday night, due to concerns he might divert law enforcement personnel needed for response to Isaac.
A Schedule of Convention Highlights*
The schedule as announced by the Republican National Committee last week. *Saturday night, officials said the convention would open Monday, then recess until Tuesday afternoon.
National anthem, to be sung by
the Oak Ridge Boys
Opening procedural steps.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn
John Sununu, Committee on Rules chairman
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Committee on Resolutions chairman
North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, Committee on Resolutions cochairman
Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Committee on Resolutions cochairwoman
Roll call for nomination of president
Roll call for vice president
House Speaker John A. Boehner
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama
Ted Cruz, Texas candidate for U.S. Senate
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
Actress Janine Turner
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
Sher Valenzuela (small-business owner, candidate for Delaware lieutenant governor)
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez
Lucé Vela Fortuno, first lady of Puerto Rico
Gov. Christie, keynote address
There also will be a video tribute to Texas Rep. Ron Paul
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican leader and convention temporary chairman
Arizona Sen. John McCain
South Dakota Sen. John Thune
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman
Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan
Florida Rep. Connie Mack
Bob White, chairman of the Romney for President campaign
Former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey
Jane Edmonds, former Massachusetts secretary of workforce
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio
Presidential nominee Mitt Romney
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald
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