TAMPA, Fla. - Last October while hosting a private meeting with presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie saw a flash out of the corner of his eye. Christie turned in time to see his then 11-year-old son, Patrick, flying on his rollerblades toward Romney.
Patrick came within two feet of Romney before hitting his brakes and stopping short. "How you doing?" Patrick asked Romney, who was visiting the Christie home to ask for Christie's endorsement.
Nonplussed, Romney ditched his pitch to Christie and began talking to Patrick about hockey. Soon Patrick's younger sister, Bridget, bounced onto the scene doing somersaults, cartwheels, and handstands. Romney warned Bridget, 8, that those tricks might be dangerous on the hard floor of the patio where the two men were having lunch. Romney took Bridget by the hand and led her into the backyard grass where he helped her with her cartwheels and discussed her gymnastics class. Christie was left eating his sandwich. But as he watched the smile on his daughter's face, he came to some conclusions about Romney.
"I would apply to most politicians the child test," Christie said while recounting the story at a joint breakfast with New Hampshire and Pennsylvania delegates during the Republican National Convention. "If they pass that test you know they've lived their lives in a way that family is central and that if family is central to them then your family is going to matter to them too. What I saw from Mitt Romney you can't fake. Children don't accept being faked with."
Christie's story was just one of many told in Tampa by Republican leaders in the hopes of humanizing Romney in the wake of a barrage of hostile advertisements against the candidate. The effort to retell Romney's narrative began when his wife, Ann, took the stage at the convention's opening night. Framed by a collage of black-and-white family photos projected onto jumbo screens behind her, she chronicled a young marriage with humble beginnings: They lived in a basement apartment and "ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish." A door propped up on sawhorses served as their desk. They used a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen for their dinner table.
"A storybook marriage?" she asked. "No not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage."
Her speech and Christie's story played well, but they were performing in front of the home team. The real test will come inside the handful of battleground states that will determine the outcome of this fall's presidential election. Will Romney be able to bond with voters there? "We need to make sure people understand who Mitt Romney is," said Jim Rausch, a convention delegate from Derry, N.H. "He's a kind, caring individual who protects his family and his business."
Romney and President Obama are battling in ultracompetitive states like Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Obama won all these states in 2008. But, with the election two months away, neither candidate has a decided advantage in races that carry a combined 115 of the 270 electoral votes needed for a victory.
The Obama campaign spent about $120 million this summer attacking Romney. Democratic advertisements have depicted Romney as aloof, a felon, a tax cheat, and even compared him to a vampire. They released a video linking Romney to the death of a woman whose husband lost his job and health insurance because - the widower claims - of Bain Capital, the asset management firm Romney started.
"If there is very little to be said concerning your accomplishments, you are only left to attack and otherwise ridicule your opponent," said delegate Clarence Mingo, an African-American from New Albany, Ohio, "and that is what the president has done during this campaign."
The Democrats' offensive has hurt Romney's campaign: An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Aug. 28 showed that 51 percent of voters view Romney unfavorably while 40 percent view him favorably. When asked which candidate was more likeable, 61 percent said Obama while just 27 percent said Romney - the lowest personal popularity of any nominee in almost 30 years.
But while Obama outspent Romney by an almost 3-to-1 margin this summer, Romney will likely spend more this fall. His campaign had stockpiled about $177 million by the end of July, about $50 million more than Obama had on hand. The bulk of that money will be spent on TV ads, particularly in the battleground states, to help voters get more comfortable with Romney.
Fueling optimism within the Romney camp are surveys like a recent Fox News poll showing that just 36 percent of independent voters approve of Obama's job performance. "The one thing in our favor is we now have Obama with a four-year track record," said Sonia Stopperich, a convention delegate from Canonsburg, Pa. "His hope and change were abstract. Now his policies are real."
Those policies, speakers reminded delegates in Tampa, include the $831 billion federal stimulus package - the largest one-time expenditure ever by the federal government - that failed to keep unemployment under 8 percent as Obama had promised. Obama the candidate called the nation's $10 trillion national debt "unpatriotic" in 2008 but added $5 trillion in new debt in just one term - by far more than any other president in history. Led by the 2,000-plus pages of the new healthcare law, the Obama administration has imposed an average of 72 regulations on manufacturers each year. The number of major federal regulations expected to have an economic impact of more than $100 million has gone from 27 per year under President Bill Clinton to 44 per year under Obama.
"We have to take these compelling truths to our neighbors and ask them, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?'" said delegate Jim MacEachern, of Derry, N.H. It's a question the Romney campaign hopes will get asked thousands of times in every battleground state over the next two months.