The Ticket: Romney and Ryan Go to Tampa

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So what kind of convention will it turn out to be?

Everyone already knows that the Republican faithful will gather in Tampa this week to nominate Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to take on Barack Obama and Joe Biden in November. What no one knows yet is what this convention will be about.

It ought to be about Romney, who is among the least transparent nominees of the past several presidential cycles and someone who could use a reintroduction. Romney faces a simple challenge this week: to appear more empathetic. Romney has spent a year arguing that he has the skills to fix the economy that Obama lacks. Many Americans have come to believe that.

But he hasn’t convinced a majority of voters that he understands the lives and myriad predicaments of the middle class in tough economic times. The multimillionaire business whiz has struggled to find a voice that resonates with average Americans. Romney must convince voters, perhaps through personal storytelling in his acceptance speech, that he in some way shares their struggles. If he can do that, it will help him mitigate Obama’s chief advantage in the race: voters’ belief that the sitting President understands the plight of middle-class Americans better than the challenger.

(Download: The CNN-TIME Convention Floor Pass Mobile App)

If Romney fails, the convention may instead turn out to be about Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who has added some needed spark to Romney’s campaign in the past few weeks. The GOP vice-presidential nominee helped unify a party split between its Establishment and Tea Party wings. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan’s sweeping plans to shrink government made him a hero to conservatives. Adoring crowds of Republicans have greeted him on the campaign trail, and Romney has looked relaxed and enthusiastic with his running mate at his side.

But it’s unclear whether Ryan can sell his vision to undecided voters. Romney’s choice of Ryan made a campaign that was once focused on jobs into one that is preoccupied with budget cuts. Since Romney selected him, Ryan has been tight-lipped and defensive about his controversial proposals to rein in yawning deficits by voucherizing Medicare for those under 55, trimming Medicaid and slashing discretionary spending. He has criticized Obama for cutting Medicare despite the fact that his own budgets have kept the same reductions on the books. And Ryan’s Washington résumé did little to balance out Romney’s lack of foreign policy and military experience.

(MORE: The Paul Ryan Paradox: GOP ‘Ideas Man’ Playing Conventional Campaign Role)

The convention could also be about a different Paul — libertarian Ron Paul — whose presidential campaign this spring fell short, but whose fervent backers have secured a role, at least of a kind, for their man in Tampa. Paul won’t be formally nominated or even speak in the convention hall, but party officials have agreed to run a video tribute to the 77-year-old Texas lawmaker. His son Rand, a Senator from Kentucky, will address delegates from the dais. Some of Paul’s proposals will appear in the party platform too. At a recent town hall in New Hampshire, Romney spoke approvingly of Paul’s plan to increase congressional oversight of central banking, something Ryan has supported too. “The Federal Reserve should be accountable,” Romney said. “We should see what they’re doing.” His economic advisers have opposed such measures in the past.

Another potential distraction from Romney’s task in Tampa is the issue of abortion. Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s recent remark that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape” has drawn attention to Ryan’s opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest. Romney, like other recent GOP presidential candidates, believes abortion should be legal in those instances.

(MORE: RNC Cover Story: The Mind of Mitt)

The convention could simply turn out to be about Florida. George W. Bush narrowly won the state in 2000 and again in 2004, but John McCain lost it in 2008, along with a number of previously safe Republican states. Republicans chose Tampa precisely because central Florida is a vital swing area in the largest swing state — and where, according to the latest polling averages, Obama and Romney are locked in a near tie.

Or it may turn out to be about the Florida weather.

(PHOTOSPolitical Pictures of the Week, Aug. 18-24)

Rain or shine, Tampa will be the first opportunity for many to see the Mitt-and-Paul show in action. The two Republicans don’t lack for chemistry. At their first joint town-hall meeting on Aug. 20 in New Hampshire, Romney and Ryan showed a natural ease with each other as they joked with voters and posed together in a photo for TIME in the library at St. Anselm College. The two men seem to improve each other’s game. Their comfort level should serve them well in Tampa, where both candidates and their families will be on display. Romney’s wife Ann is expected to speak on Tuesday. Ryan will headline the following night, and Romney will accept his party’s nomination on Thursday. Stay tuned.

More Swampland: Complete Election 2012 Coverage