Back Channels: Romney revealing himself in careful stages

GOP nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama at the start of Wednesday's televised debate.

An 18-year-old who had just registered to vote seemed surprised by parts of the Republican convention as we watched in August. I'm not sure what he was expecting - lofty speeches on issues, solutions to problems, maybe - but this wasn't it.

Why is his wife speaking? he wanted to know.

Fair enough.

Do we really need spouses and Oprah-esque testimonials during national political conventions?

Sadly, yes, as one way to counter the outlandish caricatures of candidates that their opponents create in attack ads and elsewhere.

Mitt Romney was criticized by some conservatives and Republicans for that aspect of his convention. They worried he wasn't specific enough about a vison for the future, that he wasn't tough enough on President Obama and his policies.

But, after last week's exceptionally strong debate performance, it would seem that just maybe there was a one-step-at-a-time method to Romney's strategy madness that critics overlooked.

Step one, at the convention, go easy. This would really be the first time many people would pay attention to the race. Introduce yourself; don't scare people away.

Step two, at the debate, come on strong. Be aggressive, but respectful. Respond to criticisms and falsehoods, but lay out your own plans and principles. Point out shortcomings of this administration, but contrast that with the possibilities of your own.

So, yes, in step one it made perfect sense to have Ann Romney talking about the man she's known since they started dating in 1965; their five sons and 18 grandchildren; and how he supported her during her battles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer.

The caricature of Mitt Romney that needed countering came through countless television ads by the Obama campaign and its supporters, and, more recently, the release of the GOP nominee's own poorly chosen words about the "47 percent." That is, he is a ruthless, uncaring Bain Capital-ist who plundered healthy companies, destroying careers and lives. One nonsensical ad had him mysteriously contributing to a woman's death from cancer. Even when his tax returns were released, the millions Romney had given to his church and other charities were twisted into a plot to simply lower his tax rate - something the rest of us would never, ever dream of doing.

Which is exactly why Ann Romney wasn't the only one offering another side of Mitt in August.

Pam Finlayson told the convention of first meeting the Romneys in 1982, through the congregation Mitt then led. When the Finlaysons' daughter Kate was born premature, Romney visited them in intensive care and prayed with the family. The Romneys baby-sat Kate's 2-year-old brother while she was hospitalized. They prepared a Thanksgiving feast for the Finlaysons while the family awaited Kate's brain surgery.

Romney, Finlayson said, had "devoted his entire life [to] quietly serving others."

The 14-year-old son of Ted and Pat Oparowski was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1979. During the seven months that David was in and out of the hospital, Mitt Romney visited him often. At the teen's request, Romney helped him write a will so his fishing gear, skateboard, and other items went to the right friends. He would later eulogize David at the boy's funeral.

Not mentioned at the convention was another remarkable story of when Romney pretty much closed up Bain in Boston so that he and the company's 50 employees could help find a colleague's 14-year-old daughter who was missing in New York City. They printed flyers, enlisted about 200 volunteers, and walked the city streets for two days. After their efforts made TV news, the teen was finally found safe.

"The true measure of a man is revealed in his actions during times of trouble," Ted Oparowski told a hushed convention hall in Tampa two months ago. "The quiet hospital room of a dying boy, with no cameras and no reporters - that is the time to make an assessment."

One important assessment, at least. But another came last week at the University of Denver, and there were plenty of cameras and reporters on hand - not to mention the tens of millions of viewers of Wednesday's debate.

In his command performance, Romney made the case that "trickle-down government" - high taxes, costly regulations, and a complicated health-care act - was preventing employers from hiring and thus delaying the recovery. He connected almost every idea - lowering tax rates, energy independence, more and fairer trade, a balanced budget, championing small businesses - with voters' number-one issue: job creation. He fleshed out some details, on tax and Medicare reform, while wisely leaving others to be determined, so as not to repeat the my-way-or-the-highway passage of Obamacare.

The president will no doubt regroup. But, for many, the assessment of Romney after the convention and the first debate will be a positive one. It should end the talk of this race being over.


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