This week’s Republican National Convention is one of the important moments of the presidential campaign. Until the debates in October, the estimated 35 million people (more than one in ten Americans) who are expected to watch Mitt Romney’s Thursday night speech in Tampa are the Republican candidate’s biggest opportunity to convince Americans he should replace President Obama.
Here are five major questions entering the convention.
1. How will the GOP attack Obama?
The entire Republican convention is designed for two purposes: making the case for dumping the incumbent president, and then for hiring Mitt Romney. The former challenge is a sizable one. Despite leading the country at a time of very slow job growth and high unemployment levels, President Obama not only leads Romney in most polls, but is much better-liked as a person by voters.
Asked which candidate is more “easygoing and likable” in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 58 percent said Obama, 23 percent Romney. (Fifteen percent said both.) Fifty-two percent said Obama is better at “caring about average people,” compared to 30 percent who named Romney.
The Republicans are likely to use the convention to cast Romney as a friendly family man Americans can relate to, not the jobs-cutting corporate chief executive depicted in ads by Obama and his supporters. But the GOP will also try to make the case against Obama.
What’s not exactly clear is what approach they will take. The Romney campaign and other Republicans have veered between casting the president as a nice guy who simply can’t run the country, a big-government liberal who wants to make it easier for people to collect federal benefits without working, and a divisive politician intent simply on winning. The convention is a critical time for Republicans to settle on their argument against the president and then spend the last two months of the campaign hammering that home.
2. Will the GOP make any nods at wooing voters in the middle, women, and minorities?
Mitt Romney trails Obama by more than 30 points among Latino voters, 90 points among African-Americans and has only a narrow lead among white women, a key electorate bloc. While there is a path for Romney to win despite those deficits, it would much easier for him if he made gains among them. In 2004, George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote and 11 percent of the black vote; Romney is currently earning less than 30 percent of the Latino vote and less than 5 percent of the black vote. Bush back then won white women by 11 points, Romney leads among them by eight.
The convention has a slate of speakers designed to show the party’s diversity, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Obama backer turned Romney supporter Artur Davis, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. But ultimately, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney must make the case to these voters.
3. Will a star be born?
President Obama’s 2004 convention keynote speech lead directly to him delivering the acceptance speech in Denver four years later. Can Ryan, Rubio, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Rice, or Martinez deliver such a strong speech that everyone sees them as the party’s future if Romney loses?
4. Can Artur Davis cash in on his big moment?
Davis, the former Alabama congressman, has made a dramatic shift in four years, from one of Obama’s first and most vocal supporters to backing Romney at a time when black support for Republicans is extremely low. Davis has suggested he would like to run for a House seat in Virginia in 2014. But his convention speech on Tuesday (which will not be shown by the broadcast networks, but will be on CNN, Fox and MSNBC) gives Davis an opportunity to build a bigger platform for himself than even winning an election for the House would.
A long line of black Republicans over the last two decades, from J.C. Watts to Michael Steele, have tried and failed to grow from a key voice in the Republican Party to one of its true leaders. Now Davis has his shot.
5. How will the GOP appeal to the Tea Party?
Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Herman Cain and other Tea Party icons are not giving speeches at the convention. Christie and Ryan are popular among Tea Party activists too, but known as more policy-minded conservatives who are less likely to deliver blunt, personal attacks at the president.
So one key element of the convention to watch will be how Romney, Ryan and others try to court voters in the middle while also firing up the party’s base for the next two months. Palin’s 2008 convention speech, full of its mockery of Obama, accomplished this goal four years ago, but it’s not clear Ryan can or would want to give that kind of speech.
Perry is the Grio’s political editor. You can follow him on Twitter @perrybaconjr.