Mitt’s Moment: Can Romney Finally Open Up?

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Cover Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

If Mitt Romney found it easy to open up, he would have done it by now. He has been running for President for at least five years and maybe more — maybe a lifetime. Along the way, Romney has gone from speech to interview to televised debate; he has talked relentlessly through summer, fall, winter and spring, morning, noon and night, indoors and outdoors, in sickness and in health. Every utterance was a new chance to reveal something of himself.

All of it led here, to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, where he will accept the GOP nomination on Thursday night and launch the last stage of his quest. Yet despite all that talking — Mitt, we hardly know ye. For a person to be at once so public and so opaque cannot be an accident. It’s accomplished only through disciplined effort. His friends say that undecided voters would love Romney if they could just get to know him. Perhaps that’s true. We won’t know until he tries.

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His acceptance speech at the Tampa Bay Times Forum offers another opportunity, perhaps the best one yet. It’s certainly the most important one. As former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer suggests, Americans have a pretty good handle on President Obama — or they feel like they do. The lesser-known Romney has a chance to “show more of who he is,” says Fleischer, and forge a stronger connection. A chance, in other words, to make headway in a race that has changed little since Romney emerged from the Republican primaries last spring as Obama’s challenger.

The idea that Romney is positioned to take command of the race is shared by a lot of party operatives at this cautiously optimistic convention. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell reports excitedly that the race is a virtual dead heat in his key swing state.‘s average of polls suggests that Romney has just about closed the gap in the critical states of Ohio and Florida. In his analysis of the Electoral College map this week, veteran political analyst Stuart Rothenberg concluded that Romney would be well on his way to the White House if he could manage to sweep those three states.

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Meanwhile, Romney has been sitting on a tremendous pile of cash that was raised for the general election. Now he is legally permitted to spend it. Super PACs supporting Romney are geared up to spend even more. “He survived a $200 million barrage of negative ads this summer, and the race is still tied,” says one leading GOP fundraiser. “Now he can start moving up.”

The missing piece is one only the candidate can provide. “Human would be helpful,” said one senior Republican when asked what Romney needs to accomplish in his speech. It was a typical response. “He needs to show that he understands how hard this economy is for people,” said another longtime strategist, who added, “Mrs. Romney made a start on that” in her Tuesday-night speech, “but ultimately it has to come from the candidate.”

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And that has not come easily. Romney’s address has been through multiple drafts, and the candidate was still working on it with his speechwriters as conventioneers gathered in Tampa. In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt on Aug. 24, Romney reported that, unlike his wife Ann’s speech, “mine is still a work in progress, kind of early-stage, so I’m still working hard.” Given that the campaign has known for months that this moment was coming, that’s an awfully late date to be at an early stage.

Perhaps part of the trouble is that self-revelation goes against everything Romney personifies. As a successful businessman, he was known for cool analysis, not warm charisma. The son of a popular governor and presidential candidate, and later the boss of a large consulting company — frequently the smartest, best-looking and richest guy in the room — Romney has learned to turn the spotlight away from himself to make up for his own unease. Even in the midst of his coronation, he joked bashfully in taped remarks to a Women for Romney event on Wednesday that “the delegates may have decided to nominate Ann instead.”

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Musing, he continued, “And wouldn’t that be interesting? And do you think if Ann were the nominee, the press would write stories about how my job is to humanize Ann?” He seemed almost to resent the idea that voters would like to know more about him.

Romney has built his campaign around convincing voters that he can handle the economy — and his poll numbers indicate success. He leads Obama by a large margin on that score.

But the relationship between a nation and its leader is far more complex than the relationship between shareholders and a CEO. Intangibles like trust and forgiveness enter the equation in powerful ways, and those factors take root in the gut, not just the brainpan. Romney’s challenge in the final phase of the campaign — the phase that starts on Thursday — is to respect that reality and give voters the human material they need to make their crucial gut check.

VIDEO: The Latest from Tampa