TAMPA, Fla. — Finally, Mitt Romney shook the Etch A Sketch.
Having given conservatives everything they had asked for — from switching his positions on abortion and immigration to picking their favorite as his running mate — Romney turned Thursday night to his essential task: converting some President Obama’s 2008 supporters into Republican voters.
At a convention where the rhetoric was harsh and often indifferent to facts, Romney took the path of quiet persuasion. For the most part, he chose not to speak to the fervor and anger of political activists on the right. He addressed instead less-partisan voters he hopes will be open to his candidacy by virtue of their disappointment with the man who had inspired them four years ago.
“Hope and change had a powerful appeal,” Romney said in the speech’s key passage. “But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? 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.”
In a sense, the appeal Romney re-launched here was the argument he had hoped to make from the beginning — that the election was primarily an exercise in judging the incumbent’s stewardship and, in particular, a painfully slow economic recovery.
Romney’s turn had been promised last March by his veteran aide Eric Fehrnstrom, who provided his boss’ foes with a useful metaphor for describing the ease with which the candidate has altered his positions on a long list of issues.
After the primary campaign, Fehrnstrom argued, “everything changes,” and he added: “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”
Romney knew that what he most had to shake was a personal image tainted by an impression of inconstancy on issues; attacks on his record in business both by his primary foes and the Obama campaign; and off-the-cuff comments that suggested a great distance between his own experience and the lives of most of the voters whose support he needs.
Speaking a few hours before Romney’s address, Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center, said the surveys pointed to three imperatives for Romney: He had to make himself more likable, more credible and more empathetic.