TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) – Mitt Romney faces the biggest test of his White House bid on Thursday when he addresses the Republican convention, a chance to convince America he can forge a path to economic rebirth and provide stronger leadership than President Barack Obama.
Romney will be seen by a television audience numbering in the tens of millions, with some voters getting their first extended look at the 65-year-old former Massachusetts governor, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 2008.
Romney, who can often come across as stiff and robotic, must inspire fellow Republicans, many of whom have shown little passion for him, and make the broader U.S. electorate feel more comfortable with him. Paying a brief visit to the convention hall on Thursday afternoon, Romney smiled and waved from the podium as he did a walk-through for his speech.
As portrayed by Democrats, Romney is alternately a heartless corporate raider, wealthy elitist, tax evader and policy flip-flopper who should not be trusted with the keys to the White House.
Despite the attacks, Romney is running even with Obama in polls in a race that is too close to call. A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday showed the two men tied at 43 percent each.
But Obama has the advantage over Romney in likability, an important trait that may mask other problems that the Democratic incumbent has in persuading voters to give him four more years as a weak economy continues to dog the country.
Movie star Clint Eastwood will bring a touch of Hollywood glamour to the convention in Tampa, Florida, appearing as a surprise last-minute speaker to warm up the crowd for Romney, the CNN and Fox networks reported. Romney’s speech will start at around 10:15 p.m. (0215 GMT).
Romney has a hard act to follow after the ringing “you can trust Mitt” endorsement delivered by his wife, Ann, on Tuesday to the convention, a speech widely viewed as one of the most significant ever given by an aspiring first lady.
Romney got a rousing testimonial on Wednesday night from his vice presidential running mate, congressional budget hawk Paul Ryan, who generated the most enthusiasm so far at the convention but also drew Democratic accusations that he lied about Obama’s record and distorted his own.
With an eye to the mounting costs of campaigning in the final 10-week sprint to the November 6 election, Romney broke away from the convention scene briefly to headline a lunch with big party donors in nearby St. Petersburg.
His moment in the spotlight was clearly on his mind. “I’m going to go prepare for a speech that I get to give this evening. In case you haven’t heard, I’m going to be speaking tonight,” he said jokingly.
There was no shortage of advice for Romney from Republican heavyweights.
Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 who lost to Obama, said Romney needs to accomplish two tasks: one, convince Americans “that they believe in him and trust in him, and two, that he has a concrete plan to get our economy back on the right track.”
“We’ve got to reduce the unfavorables, and many Americans will be looking at him for the first time,” McCain told Reuters.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – a son of former President George H.W. Bush, another politician known during his tenure for a sometimes aloof demeanor – said Romney had to do more to reach voters on a personal level.
“What he has to do a little better, I think – and I think he’s more than prepared to do this – is to connect with other people’s aspirations and their hopes,” he told CBS’s “This Morning” program.
Romney’s big speech culminates a long journey. After failing to win the Republican nomination in 2008, he plotted a return to the political arena. This year he was tested time and again by a series of conservative alternatives from Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum in a long and bitter primary campaign.
He outlasted all of them, helped by huge spending on negative ads by “Super PACs” that support him, but is still struggling to win over many Republicans unsure of his conservative credentials.
Consider the political odyssey of Sarah Van Dran, 74, a member of the Texas delegation at the convention.
First, she was excited about Texas Governor Rick Perry, then she switched to Gingrich. “He knew where he was going, he had ideas,” she said wistfully of the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Now I’m for Romney.”
Romney has some inherent advantages in his race against Obama. He is topping the Democrat in campaign donations, and the weakness of the U.S. economy, with a staggering 8.3 percent unemployment rate, gives him a lethal argument for change.
Even so, Romney is far from closing the deal. It is unclear whether his economic proposals for tax cuts and deregulation of industries would rekindle growth and keep taxpayer dollars flowing into the Treasury to pay for expensive government entitlement programs, such as the Medicare health insurance program for seniors, which he wants to reform.
Obama insisted the race should hinge not on personality but on stark policy choices.
“This isn’t a matter of who is more patriotic or who is more empathetic towards people or who is nicer. It’s a hard-headed assessment of what makes our economy grow,” Obama told Time magazine in an interview published on its website on Thursday.
RYAN SPEECH FALLOUT
Leaving nothing to chance at the carefully stage-managed event, Republican convention organizers extended the podium outward and lowered it closer to the audience, seeking to create more intimacy for Romney’s address within the cavernous hockey arena.
Ryan’s Wednesday night acceptance speech was hailed by Republicans and many media pundits for setting the stage for the party’s nominee.
But the Obama campaign responded angrily to some of the Wisconsin congressman’s attack lines, releasing an online video that accused him of “breath-taking falsehoods.”
“There is no delicate way to put this, but he lied. He blatantly lied,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter told MSNBC.
Ryan charged that Obama’s healthcare overhaul “came at the expense of the elderly” by reducing Medicare spending by more than $700 billion, but he failed to note that his own austere budget plan calls for equally deep cuts in the program.
He suggested Obama was to blame for the closing of a General Motors plant in his home town of Janesville, Wisconsin, when in fact the shutdown was announced in 2008 before Obama took office.
Ryan also said Obama had failed to act on the recommendations of a bipartisan debt commission he had created. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, was a member of the panel and voted against the final report.
(Writing by Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick, additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Sam Youngman, Sarah Irwin and Susan Heavey; Editing by Alistair Bell and Leslie Adler)