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u.s. election

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at the Long Family Orchard and Farm in Commerce, Michigan August 24, 2012.BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

If this were a typical race for the Oval Office, we would already know the outcome. Economic indicators, the most reliable predictors of presidential election results, would tell us there is no way for Barack Obama to avoid becoming a one-term wonder.

Yet, Republicans head to their convention in Tampa with a sense of foreboding that has little to do with the hurricane that threatens to ruin their four-day party.

Many of them fear that the man they are about to officially nominate to take on Mr. Obama could make history – and not in a good way.

Unless Mitt Romney comes out of the convention looking more sympathetic to voters, he risks making Mr. Obama the first postwar incumbent to win re-election with a jobless rate above 7.2 per cent.

A presidential election is not a pure popularity contest. But it helps to be liked. And American voters like Mr. Romney less than any Republican presidential candidate since Bob Dole in 1996. His favourability ratings are underwater. Around 60 per cent consider Mr. Obama to be more likeable. Fewer than a quarter say that about Mr. Romney.

The convention, with its unfiltered primetime coverage, has added significance as Mr. Romney seeks to fix his image. Until now, the former Massachusetts governor has been losing the race to define himself. The Obama campaign has beaten him to the punch.

Republican operatives are hoping the $20-million (U.S.) set they have built inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, with its 13 massive LED screens, will help them reintroduce Mr. Romney to voters as a kinder, gentler candidate who can get the job done.

The convention "is our opportunity to tell governor Romney's story in a very complete way," Romney strategist Russ Schriefer said in a Friday briefing. "We can show that governor Romney is uniquely qualified to take on the problems the country is facing at this time."

Mr. Romney had hoped to have already made that case by now. The convention was supposed to reinforce his image as the turnaround artist needed to get the country back on track at a time when two-thirds of Americans think it is going in the wrong direction.

Instead, Mr. Romney's past – running private equity firm Bain Capital – has been deftly used against him. He is portrayed as a cold-hearted number-cruncher who puts profits before people. One pro-Obama ad ties Bain's closing of a plant to the death of an ex-employee's wife.

Mr. Romney has not shone on the campaign trail. His references to his wife Ann's Cadillacs are unhelpful, as are his obtuse answers to questions about his tax returns. He speaks in a patrician's tongue and his attempts at humour almost always land him in trouble.

On Friday, at a campaign rally in Michigan, Mr. Romney made a light-hearted remark to underscore his roots in the state. Noting that both he and wife were born in local hospitals, he added: "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate."

With that, Mr. Romney set off a chain reaction of tweets and cable news conversations that completely overtook his speech to a working-class audience, a group he needs to win by double digits to have any chance of taking the White House in November.

Pundits were unsure whether the remark qualified as another Romney gaffe or an attempt to pander to the Republican fringe that insists Mr. Obama is foreign-born. Either way, it meant another day devoted to damage control instead of talking about the economy.

Mr. Romney has had too many such days. His choice of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate may prove fatal. Mr. Ryan's proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program for future seniors may represent a courageous attempt to address the fiscal challenges facing the country. But polls show voters want no part of it.

Mr. Romney's distant relationship with the Republican base, best characterized as one of mutual distrust, has made it too risky for him to challenge the extreme elements in his party. That was clear as Mr. Romney was the last member of the Republican elite to call for Todd Akin to withdraw from the Missouri Senate race after his assertion that the victim of a "legitimate" rape can physically reject an unwanted pregnancy.

An earlier iteration of Mr. Romney, when he ran for the Senate in 1994, would not have stood for this talk. Back then, he described himself as "socially innovative." He vowed to make preventing discrimination against gays and lesbians "a mainstream concern." He was supportive of abortion rights, his wife having lost a relative to a botched abortion.

That version of Mr. Romney might not have been able to win a Republican nomination in 2012. But nor would he likely be trailing Mr. Obama by double digits among women voters, as Mr. Romney is now.

If he has any hope of gaining traction against Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney needs to restart the conversation with American voters on his own terms and construct a narrative about his candidacy that they can warm to. The convention is critical in this regard.

Republicans tempted fate by holding their convention in Florida at the height of the hurricane season. But a storm might be a fitting metaphor for Mr. Romney's turbulent campaign.