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Analysis: The good-on-paper candidate goes personal

By Rebecca Sinderbrand, CNN
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Fri August 31, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Focus on Romney likability a convention priority, but sustaining it another challenge
  • Recent poll still gives Obama a substantial edge with voters on who's more likeable
  • Republicans did a good job humanizing Romney- CNN senior political analyst David Gergen

Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- After two primary rounds, dozens of debates and thousands of hours grinding it out on the stump, Mitt Romney and his campaign reached the top of Republican Party presidential politics and found themselves focusing on a new topic: him.

Having spent the past week pumping up Romney the man, Republicans post-convention understand that they back a nominee viewed at times as aloof and whose guarded characteristics seem hard wired.

If history is a guide, building on the Republican convention effort to push "likability" will be as important to the nominee's success in November as trying to convince voters that he can put more people to work and lift a sagging economy.

After nearly six years running for president, most voters knew who Romney was. But they'd never really met him. Polls reflected the conclusion that the electorate respected his business achievements and his economic expertise but didn't seem to like him all that much.

The Obama campaign and its super PAC allies have sought to exploit this perceived political shortcoming, airing millions of dollars in attack ads that raised questions about his finances and his business ethics.

Heading into the convention, Romney advisers publicly brushed off the likability question. But they also knew the stakes: Since Ronald Reagan, the candidate who connects with voters personally has won every White House race - and Romney has trailed Obama in that category.

Romney offers Reaganesque themes in accepting GOP nomination

In fact, none of the winning presidential candidates had claimed victory with likability numbers as low as Romney's heading into his widely anticipated convention acceptance speech on Thursday night - the single most important opportunity to script a nominee for the electorate.

"We're looking to move the underlying attributes of this candidate," a campaign adviser told CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger heading into the convention. "Which means," Borger said, "they want people to think he cares about them."

The problem is borne out in the polls. A USA Today/Gallup survey this week found just 31% of Americans viewed Romney as more likable than Obama compared with 54 % who picked the president. The 23-point deficit would seem difficult to overcome, but it's actually better than the 35-point gap Romney faced earlier this year.

Romney, whose chief executive persona cuts two ways in a political campaign, has often found himself underwater on the question of likability, with more voters expressing negative feelings than positive about his personality, his empathy, and his honesty.

At the core, Romney can be as expressive as any politician in many scenarios and on a range of topics. But he is also very private, especially on issues he apparently views as personal but are clearly in the public spotlight ahead an election.

Releasing more of his taxes; his time running private equity firm, Bain Capital, and the fortune he made there; the healthcare policy he advanced while serving Massachusetts as its governor; and his deep Mormon faith are important things that could cause trouble politically for him if mishandled.

So the effort all week was to cast Romney as a uniter and a serious leader for the times but one who also can connect with everyday Americans.

On Tuesday, his wife Ann used the word "Mormon" in her well received convention speech -- marking one of its first appearances in remarks by either Romney all year.

On Thursday night, fellow Mormons went further, sharing details about Romney's time as a church leader, including hospital visits to sick children.

What we learned from Day Three of the RNC

Craig Romney spoke emotionally about his father, and his campaign launched a website laying out more on another question -- details of his time at Bain. The night included first hand testimonials from executives involved with the company.

Romney interrupted during RNC speech
Romney reflects on growing up Mormon
Romney: Dad gave mom a rose every night

Even the Tampa convention stage itself was re-designed to visually bridge some of the gap between Romney and his audience - to literally bring Romney closer to voters.

"We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan," Romney said in his speech. "That might have seemed unusual or out of place but I really don't remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to."

He shared the details of his family and faith in a way many voters hadn't heard before. Americans were told about his love for his wife, the challenges of raising five boys, and the rose his father gave his mother each day.

Was it all enough?

To CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, the Republicans are off to a good start.

"I thought the greatest success of the convention was to humanize Mitt Romney. I think they did very, very well with that," Gergen, a longtime adviser to presidents said.

For Republicans, questions remain. Is there enough time in the race to further boost Romney's likability numbers and what kind of improvement is necessary to help him with those voters who are just meeting "Mitt" for the first time.

Opinion: Did Romney gain ground?

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