Can Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan weather the credibility storm?

Aug 27, 2012
Charles Laurence

As Tropical Storm Isaac delays Tampa convention, Republican challengers face some tough questions

THE REPUBLICANS should have been presenting Americans today with the party’s challenger to President Barack Obama in the presidential elections on November 7, nine weeks away.

Instead, the organisers find themselves a part of a weather story as Tropical Storm Isaac, slated to become a hurricane, threatens both New Orleans and the city of Tampa on Florida’s west coast, where 50,000 delegates and journalists have gathered.

As the New York Times writes: “It looks to be one of the worst nightmares for planners of Mitt Romney’s coronation”.

After months of politicking and planning, and the expenditure of millions of dollars, it is a formidable blow to a campaign that has pushed Romney and his new vice-presidential running-mate Paul Ryan to within a few percentage points of Obama in the polls, close enough to be taken as a serious challenge.

Romney and the Republican National Committee have postponed the start of the convention until tomorrow, announcing last night amid wind and rain that they were rescheduling the roster of speakers and events to compress the theatrical extravaganza that makes a nominating convention from four days to three.

But whatever the weather, the challenge is to get American voters, and particularly those still undecided in the six key swing states, of which Florida itself is one, to seriously tune into the Romney-Ryan campaign, and to like what they see.

Most conservatives voters will approve of Romney. The former Massachusetts governor was known as a middle-of-the-road Republican whose main attractions were his managerial and business skills, as exemplified by the making of his own fortune with Bain Capital and his rescue of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

His fight for the nomination through the primary process has since moved him to the right, a posture exemplified by his choice of Paul Ryan, the congressman in charge of the House finance committee who calls for radical tax cuts and radical cuts to the national budget to pay for them.

The result is that Romney presents at Tampa a clear alternative to the polices of a second Obama term, and one that plays to the Republican centre-right: pro-family, strong on defence, and strongest of all on “small government”.

The key theme of the election is – to borrow the catchphrase from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign - “The economy, stupid”. Romney and Ryan aim to cut taxes on businesses and the wealthy “job creators” while transforming Social Security, medicare for retirees and Medicaid for the poor - the heart of America’s social safety net - through privatising and slashing entitlements.

But conservatives who like the plan need convincing that Romney is serious. The Financial Times writes: “It is a crisp and radical blueprint. Alas, it lacks credibility.”

The Republicans’ problem is not just a lack of credibility - it’s whether such radicalism is what the American voter really wants.

Charles Mahtesian of [2]Politico [2], The Washington ‘insider’ website, lists nine core questions, including whether the Republicans can answer the ‘war on women’ charge, which has risen to the top of the agenda since the ‘legitimate rape’ gaffe from Senatorial candidate and anti-abortion campaigner Todd Akin.

“There may be one overarching theme to the election – the economy,” writes Mahtesian, “but Romney has too many other pressing needs to zero in on a singular issue.”

Romney is expected to ramp-up the “negative”, attacking Obama, and to set a more aggressive tone. Can he do that, asks Politico, without “seeming mean”.

It is a crucial question. As the election looms, it is clear that Obama remains “liked” and “popular” despite the disappointments that have made him vulnerable. Not so Romney. “Among Mitt Romney’s challenges: he is just not that likeable,” writes Mahtesian. “His favourability ratings are under water.”

The campaign so far has established a clear enough image of Romney, and it is that of “callous capitalist”. The most important role of this convention must be to change that.

And that is what makes the prospect of Isaac slamming into battered New Orleans, reviving memories of the 2005 Katrina disaster, into a Republican nightmare.

“Images of revelry by Republicans at a time of suffering by other Americans – no party wants these optics,” Steve Schmidt, a Republican who led Senator John McCain’s failed campaign in 2008 told the New York Times. “You have terrible awareness of all that stuff.”

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