After three hours of the Republican convention on Thursday night in Tampa, I was all but convinced that the party is on course for victory in the presidential election. And then Mitt Romney gave his speech. The Republicans have some powerful themes to hammer away at. But the fact is, they are stuck with a wooden, dull and charmless candidate. In fact, it seems almost incredible that the anti-charismatic Romney is the best they could come up with – until you remember the motley crew that he ended up running against: Gingrich, Cain, Bachmann, Santorum.
Overall, the Republican convention has done a very good job of framing its election themes. The message is that Obama is an OK guy, but he’s failed. He doesn’t understand the economy or the American dream. It’s time to make way for a businessman, who can solve problems and create jobs.
The argument has been made coherently, over the last three days. In the middle of the final night, I bumped into a liberal English journalist on the convention floor, (well, OK, it was Jonathan Freedland) – and we both agreed that Obama had reason to be seriously worried.
But the Republicans’ discipline and coherence slipped away in the last hour of the convention. The set-up for Romney worked badly. Senator Marco Rubio, the speaker before him, is everything that Romney isn’t: a natural orator, with a compelling personal story. After Rubio, Romney was bound to look stilted.
Even more problematic than Rubio was Clint Eastwood. It must have sounded like a great idea to get old Clint along - a celebrity, an American hero. But his performance was weird. He held a peculiar dialogue with an empty chair that was meant to represent President Obama. He rambled away, apparently without a prepared text. “Possibly, it may be time for somebody else to come along” – was not the most stirring rallying cry for a change at the White House. In fact, Eastwood’s performance was so eye-catchingly strange, that I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the popular chatter after the convention is about him, not Romney.
So does all this mean that the convention has been a disaster for Romney and the Republicans? Not at all. It is now clear that the party has some potent attack lines to use against President Obama. On the other hand, the heroic efforts to rebrand Romney as warm, funny and caring have failed – undermined, above all, by the candidate’s own performance.
We’ll have to wait for the next batch of opinion polls – and for the Democratic convention next week – to find out how all these factors balance out.