By Russell Berman - 08/30/12 08:35 PM EDT
TAMPA, Fla. – Mitt Romney takes center stage here Thursday night, but at many events – and a few notable speeches – across the Republican National Convention, he has verged on being an afterthought.
The animating force of the GOP’s week in Tampa has reflected the party’s chief focus for more than a year – ousting President Obama and replacing his policies with a conservative vision.
Younger GOP stars like running mate Paul RyanPaul RyanHouse to vote on NRA-backed gun measure Congress fails on promises to restore regular order and stop funding by crisis The only common ground between Donald Trump and Paul Ryan is an "R" MORE, Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) and Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: Clinton-Lynch meeting ‘raises all sorts of red flags’ Which GOP pols will actually attend the convention? Poll: Rubio holds massive lead in primary MORE (Fla.) have drawn more buzz, and the task of telling Romney’s story has fallen mainly to Ann Romney, who delivered a well-received speech Tuesday night.
That will change some Thursday, when individuals who know Romney from his time in the Mormon Church and at Bain Capital address the delegates.
"What you're going to see tonight is a lot of telling Gov. Romney's personal story," Romney aide Russ Schriefer said on a conference call with reporters Thursday morning.
But, unlike in 2008, when Republicans used their line-up of convention speakers to tell the life story of Sen. John McCainJohn McCainWhich GOP pols will actually attend the convention? Trump bucks military on waterboarding Overnight Defense: Pentagon lifts transgender ban | Navy says Iran broke law by detaining sailors MORE (Ariz.) and promote him as a war hero, the party this year has devoted less time to Romney’s biography – in part because of its desire to make the election a referendum on Obama.
Christie’s much-hyped keynote address on Tuesday drew criticism from some analysts for spending too much time touting the New Jersey governor and not enough time boosting Romney, who Christie mentioned just seven times.
Democrats have tried to exploit the dynamic, accusing Republicans of ignoring Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. “In fact, we’ve heard very little about Mitt Romney,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager. “I think most Americans don’t even know that he was governor of Massachusetts, because he never talks about it.”
At some events across town, Romney’s name has barely come up. During a cattle call of 30 Republican activists and leaders held by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform on Wednesday, the GOP nominee was the subject of just one speech and drew passing references in two others.
Other forums and panel discussions have focused more on Obama’s record and the Ryan budget plan than Romney’s own campaign agenda.
Mary Johnson, an alternate delegate from Missouri who wore Todd Akin and Rick Santorum buttons on her shirt, said would “very much support” Romney even though she backed Santorum in the primary.
She said she backed Santorum over Romney because the former Pennsylvania senator, “is genuine, and that’s what I was looking for. I don’t need a phony.”
When asked if she thought Romney was a phony, she paused for a few seconds. “I don’t know Mitt Romney,” Johnson replied. “I don’t know him, and I don’t want to infer that he is. I can’t answer that question.”
Like many other Republicans interviewed this week, Johnson said Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate boosted the ticket and gave her more confidence in Romney.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a staunch conservative who has criticized the party’s commitment to fiscal discipline, praised Romney for doing a better job of articulating his vision since picking Ryan. He downplayed concerns that the convention had focused too much on Obama and not enough on Romney.
“I do not think that will be a problem at the end of this convention,” Huelskamp said. “Where I think the governor has done a terrific job is outlining not simply how bad Obama is but actually outlining what that vision is for the future.”