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GOP to Get Back on Message in Tampa

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It's all about the message, and the message is simple.

Voters, it's time you gave Mitt Romney a second look, because you'll like what you see: a Mr. Fix-it who can fix the economy.

That will be the unified theme of the now three-day infomercial otherwise known as the Republican National Convention, which originally had been set to begin Monday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

However, Republican officials abruptly announced plans Saturday night to scrap the first day of the convention, bowing to the threat posed by Tropical Storm Isaac, churning toward Florida.

"Our first priority is ensuring the safety of delegates, alternates, guests, members of the media attending the Republican National Convention, and citizens of the Tampa Bay area," party chairman Reince Priebus said in an emailed announcement that followed private conversations involving Romney's campaign, security officials and others.

The announcement said that while the convention would officially be gaveled into session on Monday as scheduled, the day's events would be canceled until Tuesday.

That meant Romney's formal nomination would be postponed by a day, from Monday to Tuesday, but the balance of the four days of political pageantry and speechmaking would go on as scheduled.

After a week of distractions -- ranging from Rep. Todd Akin's infamous comments about "legitimate rape" to the tropical storm that looked like it might become a legitimate hurricane -- Republicans will now present a three-day television spectacle aimed at getting back on message and boosting Romney, who is locked in a tight battle with President Obama.

"The convention allows the nominee to set the table for the campaign by telling his or her story," said Michael J. Hook, the Lancaster native and Washington consultant who was assistant deputy convention manager for the 1996 GOP conclave in San Diego and a consultant to the 2000 edition in Philadelphia. "In Gov. Romney's case, it will be about his success in business, his policies, and his vision for the country."

Romney's convention comes after Democrats spent weeks pummeling him on the airwaves, in ads that made the former Bain Capital management whiz look like the bane of the nation's existence -- a job-cutting outsourcer who won't show the nation his tax returns.

Now, though, it's Romney's turn to show himself as he sees himself: a successful leader who has turned around companies, the 2002 Winter Olympics and the State of Massachusetts, where he served as governor for four years.

The convention version of Romney will look like a problem-solver who can pull the nation out of the economic doldrums that have lingered since the last time the Republicans convened, in St. Paul, Minn., in 2008.

Romney will enter the convention with specific goals, said Anthony H. Gioia, a top national fundraiser for the Republicans and a former ambassador to Malta.

"You want to energize the base, articulate the message, and expose it to the general population," Gioia said. "It's all about how Mitt Romney's experience, background and views would be a positive development for the country."

The now three-day extravaganza will build toward one central event: Romney's acceptance speech Thursday night -- which, Republicans leaders said, is likely to focus strongly on economic issues.

"They have to lay out a vision for overcoming a jobless economy, or more likely an economy teetering on the edge of another recession," Hook said. "They must convey that, if we don't have the fortitude to address these things, all we have to do is look at Italy or Greece to see our future."

Along with selection of the vice presidential candidate and debates later in the fall, most experts view the nominee's speech as one of three crucial elements of a national campaign that truly captures the public.

"It's the first time the country as a whole will be watching," Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said. "Mitt Romney and [vice presidential nominee] Paul Ryan need to stand before the country and say why they are the ones who can create jobs. This election, like all others, is about jobs and the economy."

It's also about two starkly different visions.

Whereas the Democratic convention a week later will no doubt highlight government's role in solving problems, the GOP gathering will emphasize strengthening the private sector and controlling the nation's higher-than-ever public debt.

It's not a naturally easy sell. Both Ryan and Romney back a dramatic restructuring of Medicare, in which future seniors would get government vouchers to buy health insurance -- and, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, pay more for it than under the current government-run health program for the elderly.

With polls showing that proposal to be deeply unpopular with independents as well as Democrats, top Republicans say Romney and Ryan must make the case that such tough measures are good medicine.

"They need to meld together short term ideas for how to solve the fiscal crisis, what to do about long-term debt, and entitlements," said New York State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox. "And they need to put it all together in words that cause the public to say: 'I get it.'?"

No matter how sobering the message, Romney is likely to leave Tampa in a stronger electoral position. Republicans have averaged a 5.9 percentage point "bounce" in the polls after the conventions between 1964 and 2008, according to Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political science who writes a "Crystal Ball" political outlook. That compares to a 4.3 percentage point average for the Democratic candidates over that time period.

Then again, convention "bounces" often disappear, Sabato said.

The race between Obama and Romney remains a close one, although the president maintains a lead in most polls in the crucial "swing states" that will decide the election. A Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll last week showed Obama with a six-point edge in Ohio, a three-point lead in Florida and a two-point advantage in Wisconsin.

The Florida and Wisconsin polls were tighter than those taken earlier this month, said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"Overall the race appears to be tightening," Brown said. Then again, "there has been no huge movement. The race has been tight for quite a while."

Some Republicans privately express frustration that it's still so close, given that incumbent presidents usually bear the blame for a weak economy.

And they also worry that all those Democratic attack ads -- and maybe Romney's own performance on the campaign trail -- have left him in a weaker position than he ought to be in.

An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released last week illustrated part of Romney's problem. The poll showed that while 31 percent of the population has a strongly positive view of President Obama, only 18 percent feel that way about Romney. Meanwhile, 30 percent of those surveyed have a very negative view of Obama -- and 29 percent have strong negative feelings about Romney.

Add it all up, and for now, Americans tend to like Obama more than Romney.

But this week is Romney's chance to change that. His wife, Ann Romney, is expected to focus on the candidate's personal side, while other convention events are geared to illustrate his professional successes.

"We are going to tell the governor's story in a very complete way," said Romney campaign strategist Russ Schriefer. "The convention will show that he is uniquely qualified to take on the problems the country is facing at this time."

Unfortunately for Romney, he's taking the GOP nomination at a time of some controversy.

Akin, the GOP Senate candidate from Missouri, last week reinvigorated a debate over abortion the party would rather avoid when he said that women who are victims of "legitimate rape" can fight off pregnancy without having an abortion.

But the dust-up over Akin's comments point to a larger challenge for Romney: reconciling the increasingly strident views of conservative Republicans with an electorate featuring many independent voters in the middle of the political spectrum.

Still, New York Republicans with ties to the national scene and experienced in conventions are confident that Romney and Ryan will be able to deliver a message that plays well both among the party's right-wing base and among centrist voters who are looking for solutions rather than ideology.

After all, the party knows it cannot depart Florida without energizing the Republican base, enticing wavering independents, and effectively communicating its message.

In fact, every moment of the convention has been choreographed to do just that.

"It's all a carefully orchestrated process to present the president and vice president candidates and their values," said former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence.

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