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Convention gives Mitt Romney chance to lead race

WASHINGTON -- The next few days represent an opportunity for Mitt Romney to break out and take a lead in the close presidential race with President Barack Obama.

Romney, the Republican challenger, remains tied with Obama in national polls, and the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week offers an opportunity for him to make his case to voters.

The highlight will come Thursday, unless weather continues to interrupt, when Romney delivers his acceptance speech.

That speech is one of three key moments in a presidential campaign, said Edward Cox, chairman of the New York GOP, and the impression it leaves will play a significant role as voters go to the polls on Nov. 6.

"Millions of people are going to be seeing Romney in long form for the first time," said analyst John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, instead of the short ads and news clips of his campaigning.

But the week is long, the weather is dicey and the chances for success, or distractions, are many. Here are five things analysts and convention delegates say Romney must accomplish this week.

Humanize himself

No one doubts the brains and competence of Romney, a Harvard-trained businessman who made millions at Bain Capital, rescued the 2002 Olympics and governed Massachusetts.

But Obama consistently wins the polls on likability. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 58 percent of those surveyed rated Obama as likable, compared with 23 percent who rated Romney as likable.

To counter this, the campaign said it will "tell the whole story" with a video on Romney's life and testimony by fellow Mormons and three Olympians.

"They need to have a little sense of 'I like to have these folks in my living room,' " said former Long Island congressman Rick Lazio of Brightwaters.

Pitney said, "He's got to show he's a family man, come across as a dad, not a CEO."

Focus on the economy

The economy offers Romney his best shot.

With unemployment forecast to remain above 8 percent and economic growth sluggish, Romney leads Obama in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll 44 percent to 38 percent on "having good ideas for how to improve the economy."

The economy will be stressed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the keynote speaker tomorrow night, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the vice presidential nominee speaking Wednesday.

"I would like to see some specificity on the economic debate," said New York delegate John Kiernan of Williston Park. "I would like to see Romney come out strong and aggressive."

Defuse distractions

Controversial social issues and lingering party divisions remain close to the surface, and Romney must reach out to his right while keeping an eye on the center.

The volatility of the situation was shown by the storm created by Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's comment about "legitimate rape" last week, and the need to attend to the losing GOP presidential hopefuls.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian at odds with the party mainstream on several issues who has a small but dedicated following, declined to fully endorse Romney, and settled for a video tribute to him initially set for Wednesday night. Rick Santorum, who ran as a "social values" candidate, also was scheduled to deliver a speech Tuesday.

But, Kiernan said, "I would hope we would not get distracted by debates on things like gay marriage, and gay rights and abortion. Though I respect people's deeply held view on these things, that's not what people want to talk about."

Woo women, Hispanics

A dozen battleground states will determine the election, analysts said, and in many of them women and Hispanics are a rising voting bloc.

Republicans trail Democrats among both groups -- Obama leads 51 percent to 41 percent among women and 2-1 among Latinos, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows -- in part because of GOP positions on abortion and illegal immigration.

In response, the convention had planned to showcase many women and Hispanic speakers, including Ann Romney and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who will introduce Mitt Romney on Thursday.

Smithtown Republican chairman Bill Ellis, an alternate, said he wants to see talk about dealing with "the illegals who are in this country."

But Nassau County GOP Chairman Joe Mondello said Republicans must reach out to Hispanics. "Their family values are akin to us," he said. "I believe they should be with us."

Boost the faithful

During the primaries, Romney won on his ability to beat Obama more than on his own personal popularity, polls and party members said at the time.

But Republican enthusiasm for him has been growing since he clinched the nomination -- rising, a CNN poll Friday found, from 51 percent "extremely enthusiastic" or "very enthusiastic" at the end of June to 61 percent now.

Meanwhile, Democrats' enthusiasm in those two categories has held steady, about 58 percent or 59 percent, the poll found.

To win, Romney needs to maintain and increase that margin, pollsters said.

"A successful convention," said Lazio, "is one where people leave more enthused than when they came, and have a sense of purpose."

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