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Romney’s guilt-free pass to Independents

TAMPA — Tin Man didn’t morph into a cuddly teddy bear at his Republican National Coronation, but through family videos and friends’ testimonials a clear picture emerged of Mitt Romney the family man anchored by his faith, a giving man who has spent a lifetime helping neighbors in need, a businessman who created more jobs than he destroyed, a roll-up-your sleeves leader who cares deeply about the future of our country.

Too bad most of the convention’s 30 million TV viewers missed the often emotional and heartfelt testimonials, which were not on primetime when the networks tuned in. Still, Romney’s speech on Thursday, in tone if not in substance, treated Americans to his kinder side.

And Ann “I love you, women!” Romney humanized her husband during her speech, as all wives in good marriages can easily do. She spoke of their own struggles as a young couple (hey, even those with stock options have to eat tuna and pasta to get ahead). Ann’s appeal to the undecided center-left women: Look beyond the GOP’s hard line on reproductive rights and tough talk on budget cuts that could hurt social programs and focus on your bank account and saddling your children, the next generation, with debt.

She proudly proclaimed: “I read somewhere that Mitt and I have a ‘storybook marriage.’ Well, in the storybooks I read, there were never long, long, rainy winter afternoons in a house with five boys screaming at once. And those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called MS or breast cancer. A storybook marriage? No, not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage.”

So, yes, Ann delivered Tin Man his heart — or, more accurately, tried to show us the heart that’s always been beating under Mitt’s crisp shirt and tie. And it’s a good thing because in a tight race like this one, undecided voters don’t just look at policy points or what we policy wonks know are red-meat party platforms meant to appease the most extreme wing of any party (forget rape as an “excuse” for an abortion, electrify those border fences) and that history shows us president after president have ignored once they get elected.

No, a small but crucial number of voters look for an emotional connection, a gut call.

They pick presidents like they pick their doctors — not always based on skill and experience alone but on that person’s warmth, charisma, a je ne sais quoi quality. You want a doctor who takes her time with you and explains what ails you and how to fix it. You want a president in that same way, which is why Barack Obama wowed independents in 2008 with his “hope and change” rhetoric only, to now, as polls show, be losing them by double-digits in this stagnant economy to Romney. George W. Bush also captured independents for his first election if not his second. These men connected with independents looking for the “trust” factor.

The polls’ numbers-crunchers are now busy determining what kind of bump Romney got from the convention coverage. His likeability ticked up five points, to 31 percent, compared to Obama’s 48 percent “likeability” rating among registered voters in one poll. A four-day Reuters/Ipsos poll during the convention has Obama and Romney 52-50 in general favorability, still neck-and-neck statistically.

Drill down to independents in that poll and you find Romney made an 11-point leap, with 45 percent of independent voters rating him favorably on Friday, after his speech, compared to 34 percent the day before.

When looking into Mitt Romney’s heart, it’s not too much to hope that the lessons from his father, George Romney, would inspire him to govern from the center.

As governor of Michigan, George Romney proudly carried the scarlet M (moderation that’s verboten in today’s far-right GOP). On the national stage he took on what was then the most extreme right of his party, Barry Goldwater, in 1964, and fought unapologetically for civil rights because it was the morally right thing to do.

Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, carried that M well. He had to work with a Democrat-led Legislature, and approached the job as an amicable businessman who wanted to create the conditions to improve the state economy. Thus, his signature “Romneycare” requiring everyone to have health insurance to spread the costs and lower the burden on middle class families. And so his state invested in education, too, demanding in exchange more accountability from public schools.

That Romney has been AWOL from this campaign, and may never return. But at the convention he opened the door to those independents who gave Obama the nod in 2008 and now feel frustrated, disappointed, abandoned. Romney offered them a “guilt free” nice-guy pass to head to the GOP:

“I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. . . . How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America? Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But tonight, I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know 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.”

My own political compass keeps swinging wildly, not quite settling anywhere for long. Romney’s family history —the struggles of his father, a self-made man who grew up in the Great Depression and, without earning a college degree, rose to CEO of American Motors — shines an uplifting light on what could be Mitt’s journey if only the Tin Man were to follow his father’s yellow-brick road built on strongly held convictions.