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John King: Convention goal is changing voters' view of Romney

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
August 28, 2012 -- Updated 1901 GMT (0301 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Romney advisers view "image" scores as one of his biggest challenges
  • Hurricane Isaac presents a distraction for what should be Romney spotlight
  • Republicans go into convention recognizing that President Obama is vulnerable
  • Romney must use convention to begin to change perceptions about him

Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- The black and white images form a Reaganesque ring around the concourse of the Tampa convention hall, sending an unmistakable message: This is now Mitt Romney's Republican Party.

Romney's convention challenges are many, beginning with what his top advisers unanimously say is their overriding goal: improve his "image" scores -- meaning how voters view him on questions of likeability, empathy, and understanding the struggles of the middle class.

How much Hurricane Isaac interferes with Team Romney's careful script is an open question. Publicly, as they canceled one day of the convention and juggled the agenda for others, convention organizers have kept an air of confidence they can achieve the goals despite the disruption and distraction.

Privately, however, there is a sense of frustration among some top Romney aides and advisers that the storm will steal too much of their spotlight, too much of their precious audience with the American people.

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But there is also no mistaking the opportunity: Few Republicans arriving at their convention four years ago thought victory was a real possibility; those here in Tampa -- even those with reservations about Romney -- know President Barack Obama is highly vulnerable.

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By the numbers, this race is about as close as it gets -- a dead heat in national polls, and nine "tossup" states in a CNN Electoral College analysis that, at the moment, shows the president with an advantage but also offers Romney several plausible paths to 270 and victory.

To win, however, Romney must use his convention to change -- or more realistically to begin to change -- the political undercurrents that make this a too-close-to-call race despite an economic environment that by most historical models would suggest a distinct Republican advantage.

Consider the empathy gap, the gender gap, and what you might call the ghosts of Massachusetts.

Empathy gap: Romney tends to have an advantage when voters are asked which candidate would better handle the economy -- and this question is by far the No. 1 voter concern.

Yet Obama consistently leads, and by a decent margin, when voters are asked who best understands their struggles.

In our latest CNN/ORC International poll, for example, Obama leads 53%-39% when likely voters nationwide were asked who best understands the middle class.

In a close race, if voters are torn between the candidates, trust and likeability come into play; Romney must narrow this empathy gap if he is to take full advantage of profound doubts about the president's economic stewardship.

The gender gap: Romney benefits from an edge among male voters and suffers from a deficit with female voters.

In that same poll, for example, the Romney-Ryan ticket has a 10-point nationwide edge among men, but trails the Obama-Biden ticket by 12 points among women.

When George W. Bush won a second term in 2004, in a relatively close election, he had an 11-point advantage among men and only a 3-point deficit among women.

Given Obama's rock-solid standing among African-Americans and Latinos, closing the gap with white women who live in the suburbs and exurbs is a critical Romney convention priority.

Ghosts of Massachusetts: Romney won't appreciate the comparison, but if he is to do what fellow Bay Staters Michael Dukakis and John Kerry failed to do, he must learn the lessons of their defeats.

Like Dukakis did in 1988, Romney arrives at his convention viewed as talented, and competent -- more of a technocrat than an ideologue.

Dukakis left his convention ahead in the polls, but -- believing competence would carry the day -- did little as the George H.W. Bush campaign portrayed him as far to the left of mainstream America.

Now, the Obama campaign is trying to cast the Romney-Ryan ticket as far to the right of the mainstream on issues ranging from Medicare to abortion rights.

Exorcising the ghost of Kerry is connected to closing the empathy gap. Like Kerry in 2004, Romney is viewed by a big chunk of the electorate as elitist and distant -- even indifferent.

The Obama campaign and its super PAC allies spent millions this summer pushing that image of Romney. To improve his November odds, the governor must use his convention spotlight to improve what voters think of his record in business, and prove compassion has a role in his decision making.

Ann Romney's speech is a critical part of the Romney reset effort. So is the 15-minute introduction Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio will deliver Thursday night. He told CNN he would show the country how Romney is a "role model" for how he juggles being a husband, father and grandfather with his business and political career.

Romney's principal audience is Americans watching at home, especially undecided and persuadable voters in the key battleground states. But he also has some convincing to do in the Tampa convention hall.

In our latest poll, 69% of Republicans said the party should nominate Romney, 30% said someone else.

While that clearly shows some buyer's remorse in the GOP, he is in better standing with his party and its convention delegates than McCain was four years go. Then, 57% of Republicans said McCain should be nominated, while 42% wanted someone else.

Party conventions a prelude to trench warfare

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