Who Will Mitt Speak To?

The primary is over. The convention in Tampa should be about swing voters

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Illustration by Zut Alors! for TIME

The Republican convention is Mitt Romney's first big opportunity since the primaries to speak directly to general-election voters. Will he focus on rallying the Republican base, or will he try to connect with the swing voters who hold the key to the White House?

To date, the answer has not been clear. Too often, the Romney campaign acts as if the GOP primary battle is still raging and its candidate is five points behind Rick Santorum. All this fussing over the Republican base is wasted energy. With Republicans practically dying to vote against Barack Obama in November, the GOP base is the least of Romney's problems.

Fickle swing voters are a different story. They bounce back and forth in the polls, and lately that bounce has been moving disconcertingly away from Romney and toward Obama. If Romney is to win, he will have to get those voters back, and the convention is an excellent place to begin. While today's tightly scripted party gatherings cannot compete in the ratings department with table-tossing Real Housewives and preening Kardashians, they can still scrape together a decent audience of 20 million-plus households for the big keynote and acceptance speeches. (Media attention can multiply this audience so that nearly everyone in the country hears about the speeches.) Romney must use this platform to revise his pitch and start talking to general-election voters. The question is, Will he?

The choice of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate is a murky indicator of the campaign's direction. Ryan's sunny demeanor and reformer's optimism could help Romney run a swing-voter-friendly campaign against the sour norms of politics as usual. To voters tired of the Obama campaign's onslaught of attack ads, Ryan's upbeat style will be a welcome change. Conversely, in many respects the Ryan pick looks like yet another move to please the hardcore GOP voters whom Romney already has. The party's professional conservatives are elated, seeing the ebullient Ryan as the perfect fresh face to wage a puristic ideological battle with the left, which they have long wanted. But Ryan's credentials as a leader of the House GOP's most fervently ideological wing may be a step too far for the squishier swing voters whom Romney needs most.

For that reason, the GOP's professional campaign generals are glum. Most see the Ryan choice as a strategic blunder that turns the GOP focus from the winning issue of jobs to a dicey war of attrition fought on the highly unfavorable, Democratic terrain of Medicare and entitlement cuts. That's why Republican candidates in tough House and Senate races aren't exactly racing to add the name Ryan in Day-Glo letters to their bumper stickers.

The Romney campaign says its game plan for the convention is simple: to tell the larger personal story of hard-earned success. The campaign knows its candidate is undefined and vulnerable. Romney's aides want the convention to finally fill in the blanks. That's a good start. But smart campaigns know that the media resist the pat scripts fed to them at conventions and often look for trivial stories to make a little delicious trouble. That means the campaign would be well advised to pick a clever moment to feed the bored press corps something it never expected.

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