Romney's Big Moment: Republican National Convention Speech Could Define Campaign

A successful acceptance speech could close Mitt Romney's "likeability gap" with President Obama

As Tropical Storm Isaac hurtles toward the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, Republicans are massing in Tampa for their national convention, a rally and conclave that aims to galvanize support for Mitt Romney and give him enough momentum to overcome President Obama in the campaign’s final two months.

Click here for a livestream of the GOP convention.

Romney is scheduled to formally accept his party's nomination Thursday and deliver a speech that, barring a disaster in the Gulf, will be watched by tens of millions of people. This is his big moment, perhaps his biggest of the race: a rare opportunity to articulate how he’d run the country without the noise of a typical day of stumping.

"The real importance of Romney's speech is that he has one hour with the American public paying close attention to him to introduce himself and the central themes he hopes to conduct his campaign on," said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

But Isaac – which threatens New Orleans on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – isn't making it easy. Republicans are sensitive to being seen celebrating Romney while a potential disaster looms nearby, especially given the fallout from criticism of President George W. Bush's handling of the Katrina destruction in 2005.

A successful convention speech – one that shows Romney as good-humored, a family man and guided by religious faith – could shrink the so-called likeability gap, the polling results that currently show Romney trailing President Barack Obama by a significant margin.

"Every American has a clear sense of Barack Obama at this point – they either like and support him  or they don’t," Jillson said. "But not nearly as many people have a clear sense of Mitt Romney. They have a general sense of his background but they don't have an established impression of him."

The speech also gives Romney a chance to refocus attention on what he wants to talk about: mainly, his plan to rescue the economy, and how he can appeal to women and Hispanics, two groups that are increasingly leaning toward the president, Jillson said.

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Isaac did not hit Tampa directly, but out of caution Republicans scratched Monday's lineup of speakers. The governors of Alabama, Florida and Louisiana have chosen not to appear at the convention in order to attend to their states' responses to the storm. With Isaac bearing down on a broad swath of the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle, Republicans are facing the likelihood that they will have to compete for media coverage.

"It's a mess all around, and it's fraught with risk," Sally Bradshaw, a Florida Republican and longtime senior aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, told the Associated Press. "It's not good for anybody — particularly the people impacted by the storm."

Romney, practicing for his speech in New Hampshire Monday, remained upbeat and told reporters there were no plans to cancel the convention outright. He said he hoped people in the storm's path would be "spared any major destruction" but insisted that the GOP had "a great convention ahead."

Even before Isaac's appearance, Romney and his party faced storms of a different type.

Supporters of libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who won a few early primaries, may not cede the nomination quietly. And Republicans remained divided over their party’s response to Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about the need for abortions in cases of “legitimate rape.” In the wake of the Republican congressman's statements, the Romney campaign was forced to spend precious time explaining his stance on abortion and how it differed from that of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

If there were ever a time for the Republicans to be marching in lockstep behind Romney, this is it. He is running neck-and-neck with Obama in one recent poll, with a sliver of undecided voters up for grabs. With unemployment still north of 8 percent nationwide and widespread unease over Obama’s reform of the health care system, the GOP sees so-called pocketbook issues as his ticket to the White House.

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“Americans know we can do better than joblessness, poverty and debt,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “This convention will present our vision for a brighter, better future and it will lay out an optimistic, achievable plan to make it happen.”

Outside the arena, protestors of myriad persuasions will take to the streets by the thousands. Some will march in planned, peaceful fashion. But many other groups, including those affiliated with the Occupy movement, could create more trouble. They refuse to comply with any official attempts to control dissent. Quieter actions include a group of Brooklyn artists who plan to carve a 20-foot block of ice with the words “middle class” and let it melt and an encampment that the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign will call “Romneyville.”

GOP leaders have said they weren't concerned about the protests disrupting the convention.

“We are Republicans. We believe in the right of free speech when exercised peacefully,” Republican National Convention spokesman James Davis said. “We’ll be doing the same thing inside the convention hall.”

Davis pointed out that this year’s gathering has been dubbed a “Convention without Walls” – a nod to social media that will make the events more accessible to people around the world.

But there will also be lots of fences, including an eight-foot partition that will keep non-credentialed people from the arena.

The fences are part of an intricate security response that Tampa officials hope will help them avoid the outbreaks of violence and mass arrests that marked the first hours of the Republican convention in St. Paul in 2008.

The city has spent a $50 million Department of Homeland Security grant to keep the streets safe and relatively orderly.

Police have stocked up on riot gear, ATVs, surveillance cameras and an armored SWAT truck. They’ve placed strict limits on where and how long people can march, including a designated “free speech zone” that protesters describe as Orwellian. Authorities have arranged for more than 3,000 officers from neighboring jurisdictions to assist with crowd control, assuming they don’t have to help out at home if a hurricane hits. City leaders have created an “event zone,” encompassing several square blocks in which water pistols and components of puppets are banned.

The convention starts Tuesday with a crammed schedule carrying the theme “We Built It” – a knock at Obama’s economic record, using a quote of his taken out of context. Much of the day's speeches will tout the ideals of American free enterprise that Republicans claim Obama is undermining. The headliner is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a tough-talking firebrand. The speakers who will precede him include Romney's wife, Ann, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

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Republicans will continue pounding at the economic message Wednesday (theme: “We Can Change It”) by highlighting Romney’s “Plan for a Stronger Middle Class.” Ryan – a conservative budget wonk who is not yet a household name among most voters – headlines the list of speakers, who also include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Arizona Sen. John McCain. Ron Paul, who was not given a speaking spot, will nonetheless be the subject of a video screened that night.

Thursday’s leadup to Romney’s speech includes a string of videos and speeches aimed at presenting a personal, gentler image of the candidate. The message will be not only of Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts and head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City but also as a family man, with five sons and 18 grandchildren. The opening lineup includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a primary foe of Romney's, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

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