While regular-sized Mitt Romney stood inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, telling regular-sized fables, his 40-foot-high head boomed from the side of a parking garage. The image called for blood-red banners and black bunting, for Dwight Schrute pounding the podium and yelling, "BLOOD ALONE MOVES THE WHEELS OF HISTORY." Instead, Mitt pulled an awkward smile, wincing and unconvincing, unctuously excusing himself into our hearts—the Jim Halpert of the annals American politics.
For a man speaking to a captive and friendly audience, Romney faced an uphill battle. Having supported and abandoned so many policies in his five-year presidential quest, even those committed to pulling a lever for him wanted to hear something like certitude. Romney needed to declare not only his program but himself. Even so, supporters differed on what he most needed to say.
"His flip-flops in recent years, just going back and forth on multiple issues—the proof is in the past. I don't know how you write it off," said Michelle Gearrity, a Long Island native interning at the Republican National Convention via a Washington Center academic seminar. "I feel he's going to be headstrong on jobs. That's why I'm supporting him. That's his strong point. He might have to pull out something else. I don't know."
That messaging uncertainty extended to others who pledged to vote for him in November.
"He has to confirm that he has the caring, the compassion for the common man, for the people, for America, get that message out," said Peter Beck, chairman of the Ohio House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee, who has met Romney on multiple occasions. "You don't get that feeling of warmth until you get to know him, but he has the charisma where he can lead and do the job, he just has to open his arms for everybody else."
Jaclin Recchia, a New Jersey native who worked on the Committee on Arrangements for the RNC, echoed Beck. "He needs to show himself more as a regular human being. Hopefully he can pull that one out. Ann [Romney] did a wonderful job of humanizing him, and hopefully he can follow up. I would like to hear more about his family and everyday life and less about Bain, because we know about that."
"He needs to communicate what his plan is," said Patty Calarco, a real estate investor who divides her time between Nevada and Connecticut. "What he would really do about Obamacare and how he would repeal it. What he really would do to create jobs and how he would create jobs. What about the housing market? Specifically about jobs. Specifically about taxes. Specifically about what he would do about Medicare, rather than say, 'Our plan is to save Medicare.' Be specific."
Then there were those almost guaranteed to remain unpersuaded.
"If Mitt Romney were to come out and speak against the rule changes [on Ron Paul delegates] that would do a lot to get the Liberty movement back into the Republican party," said Scott MacDonald, a software engineer, Massachusetts alternate delegate and Ron Paul supporter. "We're Republicans. We're not going anywhere. We think we're the future."
Despite pledging to vote for Romney as he was duty-bound, as a delegate, MacDonald and other Paul supporters from his state were presented with affidavits unnecessarily demanding fealty to Romney, then uncertified as delegates, then reinstated. For some of them, that was enough.
"I have no problem saying this here: in my short voting lifetime, I've always voted Republican, proud Republican, lifelong Republican. More often than not, you have my vote," said Eric Romaniak, a colleague of MacDonald's from Massachusetts. "But if you slap me in the face and tell me you don't want my vote, you're not getting it. Gary Johnson's getting my vote."
Ultimately, Romney failed to provide the specifics that Patty Calarco wished to hear, instead promoting a kind of Reader's Digest version of comforting American pop-history. Nor did he rebuke the party infighting and delegate swindling that sent countless Ron Paul supporters, like MacDonald, streaming out the exits while chanting their outrage.
Instead, he played to Peter Beck and Jaclin Recchia's hopes, with a prolonged and orchestrated handshake march up to the podium and long personal anecdotes about fatherhood, family and work.
If you walked the Times Forum concourses, though, as countless delegates did (perhaps searching for a famous politico or journalist), you heard none of that. Instead, you caught images of Romney on silent flat-screen televisions.
There, without sound, attendees saw an accidental and unfiltered version of the man. The 30º head-pan to the side, punctuating a comment. The earnest head tilt and eye-widening. The aw-geez half-smile that looked as if he were regretfully trying to chew on the corners of his mouth. The spoon-feeding face he's worn after every significant statement since the 2008 primaries.
Romney's speech, as countless others have noted, was aggressively generic. Hopeful without commitment to program, damning without adherence to fact, spiritual without religion, elegiac without actual history. Romney tried very hard to be all things to all people. But if you turned off the sound, it was plain how much he was nothing at all.