TAMPA—Day one of the most important three days of Mitt Romney's political career is over. And if the Republican presidential candidate didn't clinch the November elections on the hurricane-delayed first day of the GOP convention in Tampa, he didn't blow it, either.
Polls show a tight race for the White House. They also show that 32 percent of all voters and 37 percent of Americans who consider themselves independents don't know enough about Romney to make a decision. Republicans' goal in Tampa is to bring them up to speed, and Tuesday's lineup of speakers began that task.
Tuesday featured the successful woman governor, Nikki Haley of South Carolina; the Tea Party-endorsed Senate candidate from Texas, Ted Cruz; the Democrat-turned-Republican Artur Davis; Utah's rising star Mia Love; and a darling of conservatives, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican of New Hampshire. All weaved personal stories into the themes of the Romney campaign.
Then, Republicans turned up the energy with speeches from Chris Christie, the tough-talking governor of New Jersey, and Ann Romney, wife of the candidate. Their messages seemed muddled: Ann Romney said love is what brings us together; Christie said to forget being loved—to choose respect and hope for love later. But both did what was required: They aroused the crowd and whetted the appetites for the big stars to follow.
That would be Paul Ryan, who takes the stage tonight, and Mitt Romney, who addresses the convention tomorrow night. Ryan is a polished speaker, a confident expert on the policy questions he will address, and an effective advocate for the ticket.
Romney is Romney—competent if not cool, confident if not convivial. And after two presidential cycles, he is unlikely to make a mistake on the podium tomorrow night. If he can do a little more, if he can inspire those in the hall and at least inform those watching on television, he could move many of those who don't know him into his camp.
And that, as polling guru Larry Sabato points out, could be crucial. Republicans have received at least some bounce from each of their last 12 presidential conventions, Sabato said. It has been as little as the 2 percent President George W. Bush picked up in 2004, and as much as the 11 percent Bob Dole got in his 1996 run against Bill Clinton.
It's unlikely Romney will get an 11 percent bump, but his situation is more like Dole's than Bush 43's. With Dole, Americans weren't sure he was up to the rigors of the job until his strong showing at the convention. In 2004, voters largely had made up their minds: John Kerry got no bump at all from the Democratic convention.
In Romney's case—as in Dole's—Americans know far more about the incumbent president than they do about the challenger. This means Romney, unlike President Obama, has plenty of room to grow in the approval of voters. Can he capitalize? Nothing that has happened so far suggests he can't. But nothing that has happened so far assures he will, either.