In Tampa on Thursday night, Mitt Romney delivered what was probably the best, most effective and most revealing speech of his life. But the bar for that achievement was low. And while Romney was smooth, warm and at times endearing, his speech was not quite the command performance that might solve the lasting problem of his personal image.
To his credit, Romney touched multiple subjects that had seemed almost taboo, and had contributed to a sense that he hasn’t presented an authentic self in this campaign. He made a rare mention of his Mormon faith, quickly dispatching the fraught topic with a graceful, light touch, noting that his faith “might have seemed unusual or out of place” when he was growing up, “but I really don’t remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than which church we went to.” Message: No big deal. Most voters probably agree, but may also have appreciated hearing Romney finally identify that elephant wandering around the room.
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When it came to Bain Capital, Romney gave his best-yet account of that much-maligned firm, reminding people that his early business career was not without risk. He mentioned that his father had been born in Mexico, a potentially confusing fact to some voters, but another example of shedding welcome light on his previously murky biography. (To be sure, Romney wasn’t completely transparent: He had almost nothing to say about the centerpiece of his political career—his time as governor of Massachusetts.)
Romney also spoke touchingly about family life, raising children, and heaped loads of praise and admiration on his wife, Ann—continuing a key theme of the convention that mothers are overworked and underappreciated. Romney may hold this belief strongly, but he’s also surely aware of Obama’s daunting lead among women.
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The rest of Romney’s the speech was a fairly familiar case against Obama’s record at home and abroad. Much as Paul Ryan did last night, Romney described Obama’s failures more in sorrow than in anger. He suggested—probably with swing voters in mind—that electing Obama in 2008 was understandable, but that it’s now time to try something new. “Hope and Change had a powerful appeal,” Romney said, adding: “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.”
Romney also seemed to invite voters to empower themselves. To a nation that feels frustrated and even impotent, he suggested the prospect of decisive action. “This isn’t something we have to accept,” he said. “Now is the moment when we can do something,” Romney said. “With your help we will do something.”
There had been much talk in Tampa about whether Romney would finally “open up,” reveal himself in a new way that might change his image. That didn’t happen. (A biographical video aired in the convention hall before his speech was a more effective window into his life, especially when coupled with powerful live testimonials from fellow Mormons about his unrecognized good works. But all of it preceded the network’s live coverage and therefore went unseen by millions of voters. The video at least should have filled the slot given to Clint Eastwood’s downright bizarre performance.) But Romney passed on the opportunity to tell tear-jerking tales about, for instance, his wife’s health battles, or his own brush with death after a severe car accident.
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Still, Romney presented something close to his best face. He seemed a softer, realer figure than usual. He is not and probably never will be a star on the political stage, however. If he beats Barack Obama in November, it will be because of the case he makes about the American economy, not because America has fallen in love with him. That simply may never happen.
TIME’s new book, The Essential Voters Guide, offers a revealing look into the 2012 presidential campaign. Learn about the hot-button issues and get to know the candidates and their families. Get your ringside seat to the election here (www.time.com/votersguide)