x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Did Mitt Romney succeed in 'owning' his convention?

Even if he did not electrify the crowd and despite the fact that his speech did not define his philosophy or lay out his policy approach, the Republican nominee did establish himself as personable and resolute. Our columnist James Zogby reports live from Florida.

Mitt Romney's campaign for the Presidency has sometimes been compared to Senator John Kerry's effort to unseat George Bush in 2004. Mr Romney, like Mr Kerry in '04, faces an incumbent whose re-elect numbers are low. Both Mr Romney and Mr Kerry enjoyed the benefits of a party that is fired up and conditions for upending an incumbent.

But Mr Romney, like Mr Kerry, also headed into his convention with his party's general enthusiasm not translating into enthusiasm for his candidacy. Thus, both were tasked at their conventions with the need to excite their parties' faithful and define themselves as their parties' leaders.

Senator Kerry failed in this task in 2004. Democrats left the 2004 convention having been inspired by Ted Kennedy and electrified by then-State Senator Barack Obama. But while they could identify with and proclaim themselves to be a Kennedy or Obama Democrat, many left the 2004 convention confused about it would mean to be a Kerry Democrat.

Coming into tonight, Mr Romney seemed to be at serious risk of a similar outcome. During the primaries, Mr Romney's Republican opponents described him as having no core values, and in the past few months the Obama campaign has spent nearly $250 million (Dh918m) defining Mr Romney as a heartless conservative. The primaries and the ads have taken a toll, and while Mr Romney has been polling close to Mr Obama in one-on-one matchups, his favorability ratings among voters remain low. A Pew/Washington Post poll prior to the convention asked respondents to describe Mr Romney in a single word. A mere 28 per cent of respondents chose a positive word, while 42 per cent picked a negative. These numbers demonstrated the necessity of Mr Romney seizing the opportunity to define himself on his own terms.

One of the prevailing topics among commentators leading up to tonight's session was whether Mitt Romney would be able to "own" the convention and put his stamp on the Republican Party. So far the prospects of that happening haven't looked good. Speakers on the opening two days, for the most part, failed to even talk about Mitt Romney, let alone generate excitement about his candidacy. Even worse for Mr Romney was that voters and attendees at the convention seemed more interested in finding the next Republican "rising star" than they were in hearing about their nominee. Republicans, it seemed, were looking for their equivalent of Barack Obama at the 2004 convention.

This was part of the Romney campaign's calculus in tasking Florida Senator Marco Rubio with introducing Mitt Romney. Senator Rubio is widely regarded as a GOP "rising star", so much so that the campaign was worried that he might overshadow Mr Romney at the convention. Mr Rubio's placement in the programme as Mr Romney's introducer was aimed at channelling his appeal toward the nominee rather than giving him a platform for his own 2016 pitch.

Senator Rubio's speech did not distract from Mr Romney's, but a bizarre appearance from beloved actor Clint Eastwood nearly did. Eastwood spoke unscripted and gave an odd improvised performance in which he conversed with an imaginary President Obama in an empty chair. It was disrespectful and uncomfortable and it ruined the momentum of the night that had begun with a well-crafted video message about the Romney family. Luckily for Mr Romney, Mr Rubio was unfazed and effectively refocused the crowd on the business at had: Mr Romney's acceptance of the nomination. Mr Rubio was good. He was arguably the best natural speaker of the convention. But he was short on substance and not long on Mr Romney.

Then came Mitt Romney's turn on stage.

His address to the convention was his chance to wrest attention from the distractions of the 2016 aspirants, the unruly Paulites, and Hurricane Isaac. Ann Romney had done an excellent job of humanising her husband's image and Paul Ryan had succeeded in firing up supporters. But Mr Ryan's and Ann Romney's efforts would have been for naught, if the candidate himself failed.

With a clear imperative, and with the historical warning of Senator Kerry's example, Romney took the stage. His speech was well crafted and effective in personalising the candidate and projecting his determined businesslike style to a national audience. He peppered his remarks with the sort of heartfelt personal anecdotes that his speeches had, heretofore, lacked.

A significant portion of Mr Romney's speech was devoted to an appeal to female voters. He spoke passionately about both his wife and mother, saying their jobs as mothers were "more important than mine." Of his many attacks on Mr Obama, one stood out as likely to resonate beyond tonight. Mr Romney played to the disappointment of voters in Mr Obama in saying "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.".

Mr Romney's acceptance speech included a brief but quite hawkish section on foreign policy, in which he criticised Mr Obama for "talking" to Iran and for "throwing Israel under the bus." For the most part, however, the speech was light on both foreign and domestic policy specifics. If there was any moment in the speech that his critics could latch onto, it was his quip on climate change. Mr Romney used global warming and "rising oceans" as a laugh-line, which could be painted as insensitive while New Orleans is being battered by Hurricane Isaac.

On paper, the Mitt Romney's acceptance speech was a success. The crowd was enthusiastic, but whether that enthusiasm extends beyond Tampa remains to be seen. Even if he did not electrify the crowd in the way that Paul Ryan did. And despite the fact that his speech did not define his philosophy or lay out his policy approach, Mr Romney did establish himself as personable and resolute. Whether this is enough and whether Mr Romney will succeed in "owning" the convention and the Republican Party will only become clear in the coming weeks.

James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute (www.aaiusa.org and @aaiusa)