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Published August 28 2012

Editorial: Romney’s ‘likeable’ challenge

Mitt Romney’s speech this week from the Republican National Convention in Tampa is supposed to reintroduce him to the nation. American voters, Republican officials say, will have a chance to get to know the real Romney and his family.

It’s a curious mandate.

Romney has been on the national scene for a long time. Not only was he a successful governor of a major state, he was architect of a plan that redefined management of the Olympics. He ran for president before, which certainly qualifies him as a national figure. And finally, the lengthy and high-profile Republican primary/caucus season put Romney front and center in raucous contests all over the nation, from which he emerged the winner.

So what’s to reintroduce? Was the Romney of the primaries not the real Romney? It’s more likely his campaign means “redefine” the candidate in a way that separates him from the image created during months of media portrayals. But there is only so much the Romney campaign can do.

Presidential elections often hinge on the “likeable factor.” Recent opinion polls (the latest just a couple of days ago) find that Romney is in double digits behind President Barack Obama in the likeable factor. The margin is surprising because Obama’s policies and initiatives – from the Affordable Care Act to the auto industry bailout to his job-killing energy proposals – are unpopular. Moreover, the economy has not recovered, despite the president’s three-plus years in office. Yet, a majority of Americans finds him more personable, more affable and more genuine than Romney, the polls consistently say.

Republicans might discount the likeable factor, but it has proved to be important in past elections. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the most memorable recent examples of presidents who capitalized on their winning personalities, even as the country was divided either by their policies or (in the case of Clinton) personal behavior. Each man easily won a second term after first terms that were marked by policy disasters or moral turpitude. Americans gave them a pass because they liked both men and identified with them, failures, foibles and all.

Romney has been unable to close the gap between his private self, which by all accounts is warm, witty and relaxed, and his public self, which is stiff, uncomfortable and often comes off disconnected from average Americans.

Americans want to connect with their president on a personal level. They might believe Romney is best qualified to right the nation’s listing economic ship, but if they don’t identify with a candidate on more than policy and party, history shows they will be reluctant to vote for him.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.