Republicans rally round Romney and the red, white and blue


A storm is threatening Florida and the city where Republicans are gathering, writes LARA MARLOWEin Tampa

THIS IS how political parties prepare for battle, with garlands of red, white and blue paper flowers around their necks, cocktails and platters of cold cuts and cheese.

Michigan's attorney general Bill Schuette, the chairman of Mitt Romney's campaign in that state, rallied his troops for a party.

"For the next 70 days [until the presidential election], everyone has to be very focused," Schuette says. "It's relational. We've got to have a lot of boots on the ground and strong organisation.

"When we leave this place, we've got a chance to win Michigan for the first time in 24 years. It's all about who are your key lieutenants."

Schuette is a former US congressman and state senator, who started his political career going door to door holding up a shoe marked with a "T" so voters would learn how to pronounce his name. He imposes similar clarity on the Romney campaign.

"This is a pay cheque election. It's a jobs election. If you ask people, 'Are you better off now than four years ago?' most people will say 'No'. If you ask, 'Do you feel more optimistic about the future?' they say 'No'.

"This is a very clear choice. Do you want more freedom or more government? More opportunity or more dependency? More American values or more European values?"

Outside, it is, quite literally, raining on Romney's party.

There's something doom-laden about the unremitting precipitation, the fear that Tropical Storm Isaac could reach hurricane force and slam into New Orleans tomorrow, on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which so damaged George W Bush's reputation.

The Republicans opened their convention for a few minutes yesterday, long enough to start a "national debt clock" highlighting President Barack Obama's greatest vulnerability: the record- breaking $15.9 trillion debt, up $5 trillion since Obama took office.

The convention then went into recess until this evening, while waiting for the storm to pass. It has dampened pre-convention festivities. The strip clubs on Dale Mabry Highway report a disappointing turnout, despite the attraction of a Sarah Palin lookalike who removes her red, white and blue corset.

The inclement weather, however, has enabled the party to drop two embarrassing speakers: Florida governor Rick Scott, the most unpopular governor in the nation, and Donald Trump, the property magnate and "birther" conspiracy theorist.

"Seems to me it's not the most intelligent thing to do, to book a convention here in the middle of hurricane season," said Lee Velotko, a retired airline steward who was on my flight from Washington. "But then when have the Republicans ever been intelligent?"

The Republicans had their reasons. Florida is the biggest swing state and the Tampa region, on the interstate 4 highway that bisects the state, is the main area that swings back and forth.

Religious and Tea Party conservatives live to the north; Democrats to the south.

Back at the Michigan delegation's soirée, Bobby Schostak, a commercial property developer and the Republican party's state chairman, explains the Romney campaign's strategy of diversion.

"We'll put a lot of pressure on Obama, force him to spend time and money in Michigan. That will keep him out of Ohio."

Ohio is, with Florida, one of the most important swing states.

Sometimes self-delusion creeps into Republican rhetoric, as when Schostak tells me that Obama's $80 billion motor industry bailout - which Romney opposed - has disappeared as an issue in Michigan. American-made cars are selling again because of their superior design and quality, not the bailout, Schostak insists.

"People are happy the industry is doing better, but they're not happy that taxpayers' money was used to do it. The government should have used loan guarantees."

Saul Anuzis, the national committee man for Michigan, recalls being the youngest delegate at the 1980 Republican convention, which nominated Ronald Reagan.

"I believe we have the potential to have as important an election as 1980," Anuzis says, asserting that Obama "is the most radical left-wing president we've had in generations".

Republicans compare a Romney victory over Obama to Reagan defeating the incumbent Jimmy Carter. The failed candidate Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista will use their allotted time before the convention to show their documentary on Reagan.

Romney, though, cannot hope to rival Reagan's - or Obama's - charisma. In a USA Today/Gallup poll this week, 54 per cent of voters said Obama was more likeable, to 31 per cent for Romney. The same voters said Obama was more likely to care about them, 52 to 36 per cent.

"It will be a failure of the convention of they don't somehow soften Romney's image," says Kerry Haynie, a political science professor at Duke University. To this end, Romney's wife Ann will tonight tell the convention what a warm and fuzzy guy he is.

A host of Romney acolytes will deliver testimonials to his caring nature before he speaks on Thursday night, including fellow Mormons. Until now, Romney has shied away from publicising his faith. In another shift, he vaunted his record of establishing near universal healthcare as governor of Massachusetts - a legacy from which he hitherto ran away - in an interview with Fox News.

The changes are doubtless prompted by the campaign's internal polling, but the constant shifts blur Romney's image even more. He has often said that Obama is "a nice guy" who "just isn't up to the job".

However, in an interview published yesterday by USA Today, Romney called the president "vituperative" and "vicious", adding, "I do think that the president's campaign of personal vilification and demonisation probably draws some people away from me."

Romney dismissed those Republicans who stress how important it is for him to "connect" with voters in Tampa.

He said the leaders he most admired were Bill Bain, the founder of Bain Capital where Romney made his fortune, and John Willard Marriott, the Mormon founder of the hotel chain, after whom he was named.

If elected, Romney promised, he would treat his cabinet like a board of directors, and apply his management skills to running the country.