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Politics

Is Mitt Romney Ready to Ride Out the Storm?

The Tampa convention should give the GOP nominee a bounce, if his message is heard.

For months, the Republican establishment worried that strident backers of Texas Rep. Ron Paul might disrupt the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Now, two new threats -- Tropical Storm Isaac and outspoken abortion opponent Todd Akin, a House member from Missouri -- are threatening to rain on Mitt Romney's parade.

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From the point of view of Romney and his backers, the timing of the one-two punch from Isaac and Akin couldn't be worse. Romney and his running mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, need to make a convincing case for why they should run the country, and they need a convention-fueled bounce in the polls to help sell themselves to undecided voters.

As Romney gets ready to officially claim the GOP nomination, his message is somewhere between muddled and overshadowed, thanks in part to a massive effort by the Obama campaign to define him as out of step with Main Street America. The former Massachusetts governor has been on the defensive about his leadership at Bain Capital, his reluctance to release multiple years of tax returns, his use of offshore bank accounts, voter concerns about Medicare and, most recently, a renewed fight over abortion based on Akin's suggestion that rape victims aren't likely to get pregnant.

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Every day that President Obama and his campaign keep Romney playing defense is one less day for the Republican nominee-to-be to try to saddle Obama with the sluggish U.S. economy.

So Tampa is an all-in moment for Romney. He needs to find his voice and establish a tone that can carry him through Nov. 6.

It's not his last chance, by any means. But the opportunities are dwindling.

There isn't much Romney or anyone else can do about Isaac. All the scripting and planning that went into the convention -- what is, in essence, Romney's coronation -- won't change Isaac's path. Florida is used to hurricanes and tropical storms, but they usually don't hit while 10,000 visitors who aren't as storm savvy as the natives tie up traffic, fill hotels and crowd open bars. That's a nightmare for emergency preparedness officials.

For most Republicans, though, the real nightmare is Akin. Many party leaders fear that his no-exceptions position against abortion will scare women, especially in the suburbs that Romney needs to win, and will widen the advantage Obama already has among female voters.

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Yes, the abortion debate can help Romney light a fire under Christian conservatives, but they're already in his corner. Sooner or later, he needs to broaden his appeal. Because of voter registration numbers, no Republican can win the presidency without the help of a fair number of independents or crossover Democratic moderates.

Romney's real chance to reach beyond the base will come after the convention, both on the campaign trail and in the upcoming debates with Obama. Next week is for preaching to the choir. But he does need to keep an eye on the clock.

So far, Romney hasn't provided even his staunchest supporters with a simple declarative sentence that defines why he should be president. The only clear message from Romney has been one that roughly translates into, "I'm not Barack Obama." When the convention fades into history and the sprint to the Nov. 6 finish line begins, that isn't likely to be enough to beat an incumbent.

Romney needs to stand up to the storms and stand for something. His economic message can be potent, but he needs to raise his voice to be heard above all the noise about Isaac and Akin and Medicare. And he needs to do it soon.

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