By Niall Stanage - 08/31/12 05:05 AM EDT
TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney satisfied but failed to ignite the final night of the Republican National Convention on Thursday evening, with an address that was polished and competent but only sporadically exciting.
More damagingly, perhaps, this most controlled of candidates risked being overshadowed by a bizarre, meandering performance from veteran actor Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood used up roughly 10 minutes of network TV prime time with a soft-spoken, ad-libbed address that involved him talking to an empty chair meant to represent President Obama.
The chagrin Romney’s campaign team is likely to feel about that will be heightened because the candidate, often criticized for his supposed lack of natural ease, spoke affectingly of his family.
Romney’s eyes moistened at at least two points during the speech: when he recalled his parents as “true partners” and when he spoke about his paternal love for his children.
He offered several slivers of red meat to the party faithful, and some were devoured with particular enthusiasm. Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when he painted a picture of a nation grown tired of Obama’s grand rhetoric and heady promises.
“President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” he said as the audience began to laugh.
“My promise is to help you and your family,” he added, as the delegates rose cheering in unison.
Elsewhere, Romney settled on a more sad than angry critique calibrated to appeal to the voters who provided the president with his winning margin in 2008. These are the people Romney must bring over to his side of the ledger on Nov. 6.
In his telling, the Obama presidency began with hope and idealism and is drifting to an end amid disillusionment and dismay.
“ ‘Hope and Change’ had a powerful appeal,” he said at one point, citing Obama’s famous 2008 slogans. “But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack ObamaBarack ObamaNigeria is making progress on economic reform and security Obama the 'X' factor of the 2016 cycle FULL SPEECH: Hillary Clinton closes out Democratic convention MORE, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama?”
The tone of those remarks seemed to underline Romney’s mindfulness that polls have shown the nation’s 44th president enjoys resilient personal popularity. This has long complicated the task Romney faces in framing an election-winning argument against him.
One way to do so could be by countering the Obama team’s portrayal of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
“In America, we celebrate success, we don’t apologize for success,” he said to another of the night’s biggest cheers.
He also emphasized the relatively ordinary landmarks on the way to extraordinary business status.
He talked about leaving Michigan, where his father was an auto executive — and later governor — because otherwise “I’d never really know if I was getting a break because of my dad. I wanted to go someplace new and prove myself.”
And he recalled his challenging early days as a founder of Bain Capital, saying “while we believed in ourselves, not many other people did.”
But Romney’s policy prescriptions were sketches rather than detailed maps, focusing largely on a five-point plan that he has been touting recently on the campaign trail.
Several passages of the speech also seemed to drift by without memorable lines, imagery or slogans. And, even as Romney was speaking, Eastwood’s peculiar performance hung in the atmosphere and dominated the discussion on social-media outlets like Twitter.
Still, Romney did try to address some long-time challenges head on.
Romney highlighted his record of appointing women to senior positions during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts and lavished praise on the women who had spoken earlier in the convention, including former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his wife, Ann Romney.
For much of his long march to claim the Republican nomination, concerns were raised about how Romney’s Mormonism was viewed, especially by the Christian evangelicals who are well-represented among the GOP’s grassroots.
On Thursday evening, Romney spoke with unusual forthrightness of his experiences in that church, and of it providing him with a sense of community and “kinship”.
Prominent Republicans in the audience offered enthusiastic praise for Romney’s speech. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told The Hill “I’m very much more confident after tonight. You are going to see a bump, a movement across the country.”
But whether the view of GOP politicians like McCarthy will resonate with the undecided voters Romney needs to reach remains an open question — especially since attention now moves on to Obama and the Democrats, who convene in Charlotte, N.C., next week.
After Romney spoke, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina released a statement asserting that “with no new plans and evasion about his real plans, Mitt Romney leaves this convention no stronger than he came.”
For Romney, the concern will be less about what Democrats say than whether Eastwood’s peculiar performance delivered an August surprise that has damaged his biggest chance to present himself unfiltered to the American people.
—Erik Wasson contributed to this story.