Most political observers are eagerly anticipating New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech tonight at the Republican Convention and speculating on how it will stack up against other famous keynotes, be they hits like Barack Obama in 2004 or flops like Bill Clinton’s in 1988. The bet here is that Christie will hit it out of the park as the crowd laps up his confrontational style as he tears into the Democrats and President Obama. But his won’t be the most important talk from the RNC podium. Ann Romney’s speech, moved from its original Monday night slot will be a lot more important in terms of the convention’s goal of re-introducing her husband to the American public.
Romney’s biggest problem is the perception of him as a remote plutocrat. That means the usual effort to talk about Romney’s family and personal life is more important than it would normally be for a presidential candidate. Just as crucial is the fact that Ann Romney is probably her husband’s best surrogate. While it is doubtful that too many votes will affected by the question of who will be First Lady next January, Ann Romney’s discussion of who her husband really is can play an important part in not just humanizing him but in making him more likeable. Anything she does that takes down the liberal media’s portrait of the former Massachusetts governor as a heartless bean counter who tied a dog on the roof of his car will give his campaign more material aid than anything Christie says.
Appearances by wives at conventions have not always been that successful. In 1996, Elizabeth Dole did a star turn talking about her husband Bob and channeled Phil Donahue as she wandered about the convention floor. But the only thing that accomplished was to remind the public that the more articulate and appealing member of the Dole family was the one who wasn’t running.
There will be some of that kind of talk tonight when Mrs. Romney is speaking but unlike what happened with Liddy Dole, there won’t be a sense that she is competing with her husband. Indeed, if the speech ends with Mitt making a guest appearance on the podium it will put on display Romney’s most humanizing quality: his deep love for his wife. Every time I saw Mrs. Romney introduce her husband after a primary victory this past spring, the most striking thing about the exchange was the way Mitt looks at Ann. His lovestruck gaze was pretty much a carbon copy of the way Nancy Reagan used to look at Ronnie.
Mitt Romney won’t win the hearts of America with his wonkish ability to cite facts and figures, but his affection for his wife is a window into what is clearly his most attractive quality. The more Americans see Ann Romney and her husband with her, the more they are going to like Mitt.