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Five things we learned from Day Three of the RNC

By Peter Hamby, Kevin Liptak and Paul Steinhauser, CNN
updated 10:28 AM EDT, Fri August 31, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Romney's speech was more about Obama than himself
  • Republican presidential candidate made clear election is referendum on economy
  • Rubio's speech makes him 2016 GOP front-runner should Romney lose
  • Jeb Bush makes clear he's had enough bashing of his brother

Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- Mitt Romney accepted the Republican Party's nomination for the presidency on Thursday night, culminating a convention shortened to three days by Tropical Storm Isaac.

The closing image from the convention's final night was Romney with running mate Paul Ryan surrounded by their families and showered with balloons. But the lasting image might be Clint Eastwood speaking to an empty chair.

Here are five things we learned Thursday:

1. Do we know more about Romney the man than we did before?

Eastwood uses empty chair as prop at RNC
Romney's entire RNC speech
Eastwood: We own this country
Romney reflects on growing up Mormon

From an emotional video to a speech with more insight on his family, his faith and his career, Romney used the most important address of his life (yes, way overused, but true) to open up to Americans voters.

"You know, I can't explain love. I don't know why it happens. I don't know why it endures the way it does. You know, at the very beginning, I sat with her, chatted with her, put my arm around her and something changed," Romney said, sharing his feelings for his wife, Ann, in a video that played before his address.

Day Three at the Republican National Convention

It was a rare display of emotion by the Republican presidential nominee.

And in his speech, Romney opened up about his parents: "My mom and dad were true partners, a life lesson that shaped me by everyday example." And he opened up about his family: "Unconditional love is a gift that Ann and I have tried to pass on to our sons and now to our grandchildren."

And he opened up about his faith, which he's infrequently discussed during his second bid for the White House.

"Like a lot of families in a new place with no family, we found kinship with a wide circle of friends through our church. When we were new to the community, it was welcoming and as the years went by, it was a joy to help others who had just moved to town or just joined our church," Romney shared.

The race for the White House is basically a dead heat, but polls indicate Romney trails President Barack Obama when it comes to his favorable rating and likeability. And a speech in front of a national television audience of up to 40 million people gave Romney a perfect opportunity to open up.

Miss Romney's speech? Here's a transcript

So did Romney succeed in giving Americans a better sense of who he is?

The jury's still out.

"Self-revelation and introspection are still not his strong suits," said CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley, anchor of "State of the Union." "He had some good lines, some nods to his religion, but if you want a public emoter, Mitt Romney will never be your guy."

CNN Chief Political Analyst David Gergen gave it mixed reviews.

"I think it humanized him very well. I think it introduced him on a personal level," Gergen said. "I thought this speech had lots of heart, but it needed more soul. It needed more poetry."

2. Speech puts referendum election into sharp relief

Romney's convention-night speech put into sharp focus how much Republicans think November's election will boil down to whether voters think they're better off economically under Obama. In the biggest speech of his political career, Romney spent much of his time picking apart his Democratic opponent, deriding the promises Obama made in 2008 and vowing to work harder to put Americans back into good paying jobs.

"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet," Romney said, harking back to statements Obama made when running for president four years ago.

"My promise is to help you and your family," he continued as delegates roared.

Photo gallery: The best pictures from the convention

While attacks on Obama's economic polices are nothing new for Romney, his near-singular focus on trying to show the president's failings lent his convention speech the air of a fired-up campaign rally, rather than a sweeping address designed to rouse the base along with undecided voters.

While other speakers over the course of the three-day convention offered feel-good moments, the heart of Romney's speech was an impassioned ticking through of the five-point economic plan he lays out at every campaign stop.

Republicans, bolstered by polls showing voters putting the economy as their No. 1 issue, say that very specificity is what will put them over the top in November, even if it comes in place of the grander rhetoric employed by Obama.

"It was that substance gap that he opened up against President Obama here where he made the case that what the president has done didn't work," said Ari Fleischer, a CNN contributor and former press secretary for George W. Bush. "I thought it was a big hit."

The risk in Republicans' strategy is that it relies on economic factors out of their control. If the economy improves, the argument against Obama weakens. In a recognition of that reality, Romney's speech Thursday attempted to conjure a more general American funk, which the GOP nominee cast as a result of overhyped promises four years ago.

"There's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him," Romney concluded.

Fleischer said the line "encapsulated the disappointment that the American people have in the country under President Obama. And that is a powerful indictment of a line."

3. Rubio seizes the moment

If Romney loses in November, there will be a singular front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Not Paul Ryan. Not Chris Christie. Not Jeb Bush.

His name is Marco Rubio.

Republicans saw why on Thursday when the 41-year-old Cuban-American senator from Florida introduced Romney with a powerful speech about America's greatness that electrified the convention crowd.

Rubio: Obama is a bad president

In the GOP, Rubio is the only figure possessing the kind of goosebump-inducing stage presence that Barack Obama had 2008.

Forget for a moment that his remarks were mostly absent of policy substance or lacked any specific argument as to why Romney will be a better president than Obama. Political campaigns are about stories, emotions and biography -- and Rubio's speech had it all.

There were doses of sharp-edged rhetoric to fire up the GOP crowd -- "Our problem is not that he's a bad person, our problem is that he's a bad president," went one of his best lines -- but the speech was mostly optimistic and forward-looking.

When he spoke about his personal life as the son of immigrants who "never made it big" but worked hard nonetheless, the audience was rapt. Inside the convention hall, people were crying.

One Republican operative in the audience texted CNN to say that the speech threatened to "overshadow" Romney and said that the campaign should have given the keynote address on Tuesday night to Rubio instead of Chris Christie to avoid that very problem.

The thing is, Rubio does this all the time. While on a much bigger stage and more finely tuned, the convention address was similar to any speech Rubio gave during his insurgent Senate bid in 2010.

So even if he overshadowed Romney, he couldn't help it.

Lanny Wiles, a longtime Republican master of campaign stagecraft, watched the Thursday speeches inside the CNN Grill in Tampa. He said the difference between Rubio and Romney is "like the difference between a Baptist preacher and a Methodist minister."

"It's the same message, but one delivers it better," Wiles said.

4. The Bushes have a posse

For half a decade now on the campaign trail, George W. Bush has been a punching bag not just for Obama and his fellow Democrats, but also for Republicans frustrated with his administration's tendency to break with conservative dogma on matters such as spending, education and immigration.

Well, Jeb Bush is fed up and not going to take it anymore.

You might have missed it if you weren't watching the speech at the height of prime time coverage, but the former Florida governor went off script to defend his brother, the deeply unpopular 43rd president of the United States.

Open Story: CNN.com's collaborative convention coverage

"Before I began my remarks, I have something personal I would like to share with you," Bush told the convention crowd.

He said he was "blessed to be part of a family that has committed its life to public service."

"And my brother, well, I love my brother," he said. "He is a man of integrity, courage and honor, and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us say safe. So, Mr. President, it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies."

It was a comment that mostly flew under the radar.

But it was a reminder of two things at a moment when GOP is still figuring out how to grapple with the Bush legacy.

First, Bush family members will always defend their name and their honor in the face of political criticism.

And second, Jeb is his own man. He has often strayed from the Romney script throughout this presidential campaign and was not afraid to do so again on Thursday, even if it risked reminding voters a president they might rather forget.

5. An unconventional lead-in to a convention speech

Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood's unscripted endorsement of Mitt Romney lit up social media, with tweets that he was fantastic and edgy going up against tweets that he was awkward and terrible. But the larger question is whether the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor's performance distracted or stepped on the Republican presidential nominee's acceptance speech.

Eastwood carried on a sometimes rambling conversation with an imaginary President Barack Obama in an empty chair next to the podium.

Eastwood's speech: Good, bad or ugly?

"So, Mr. President, how do you handle promises that you have made when you were running for election, and how do you handle them?" Eastwood asked.

"I mean, what do you say to people? Do you just -- you know -- I know -- people were wondering -- you don't -- handle that OK. Well, I know even people in your own party were very disappointed when you didn't close Gitmo. And I thought, well closing Gitmo -- why close that, we spent so much money on it. But, I thought maybe as an excuse -- what do you mean shut up?" Eastwood continued.

Moments later, Eastwood asked the imaginary Obama, "What do you want me to tell Romney?" and answered his own question by saying, "I can't tell him to do that. I can't tell him to do that to himself."

Minutes after Eastwood left the podium, a Romney campaign official put out a statement justifying the performance, saying, "Judging an American icon like Clint Eastwood through a typical political lens doesn't work. His ad-libbing was a break from all the political speeches, and the crowd enjoyed it. He rightly pointed out that 23 million Americans out of work or underemployed is a national disgrace and it's time for a change."

Some conservative pundits agreed.

GOP strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos said Eastwood "proved he cannot do improv. But he did something that is rare in politics. He made it socially acceptable to be able to laugh at Barack Obama."

And some suggested that the optics would have been much better, and Romney would have been better served, if Eastwood had been given a slot in the less important 9 p.m. hour than at 10 p.m., when the broadcast networks started their coverage.

Democratic strategist and CNN contributor James Carville, in a rare moment of diplomacy, said Eastwood's performance "was different."

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