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WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney built his image as a turnaround artist 10 years ago, when he helped save the financially ailing 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
This week in Tampa, after a storm delay, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee hopes to cement that reputation in a national convention staged in every detail, right down to the national debt clock on the podium, to project the image of a no-nonsense businessman who can turn around the U.S. economy.
As delegates from Minnesota and around the nation converge on the crucial battleground state of Florida, Romney advisers don't expect to win the battle of soft sepia tones and soaring rhetoric against President Obama, whose convention starts in Charlotte, N.C., after Labor Day.
What they are looking for is a business-like, surgical boost in a presidential contest that has remained relatively static since Romney secured the GOP nomination in early spring.
Convention planners also are stressing the need for unity in the face of a significant movement of Ron Paul libertarians that has captured several hundred delegates from around the country, including 32 of the 40 voting from Minnesota.
Despite Romney's focus on a tepid recovery that he says has sapped workers' confidence in the future, the president holds a slight lead or is statistically even in an average of tightening national polls. Pollsters and Obama campaign advisers attribute that in part to their strategy of using Romney's immense wealth and corporate chieftain status to make him appear out of touch with the plight of ordinary working people.
One of the central tasks of the four-day GOP convention will be to counter that dark Democratic narrative with a sunny American success story of personal achievement that begets broader prosperity. The convention theme -- "A Better Future" -- will cast Romney as a can-do guy who will unshackle American capitalism from "big government" taxes and regulation.
"Obama ran on hope and change in 2008," said former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who will be in Tampa for the American Action Network, a group that is helping fund Republican candidates nationwide. "Romney and Ryan are now the candidates of change," said Coleman, referring to Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.
Coleman, a policy adviser to Romney, also expects the campaign to focus on the economy and to try to forge a connection with unemployed and underemployed Americans. "If it's a battle of ideas, we win," Coleman said. "[Romney] can fix the problems that haven't been fixed. The economy needs fixing, and it's not going to be fixed by the man that's at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
A battle of ideas may or may not leave room for the traditional convention fare of personalizing the candidates and their families at the top of the ticket. Also, the arc of Romney's life as the son of auto executive and former Michigan Gov. George Romney does not lend itself to a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.
It's a biography that some Minnesota Republicans thought might be balanced by a ticket that included former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the son of a delivery truck driver in South St. Paul.
Pawlenty, instead, will get a prominent speaking role Wednesday night -- when Ryan will give his acceptance speech for the vice presidential nomination.
Romney's record of business success and wholesome family life is likely to play an important part in the testimonials that come from the convention stage, from the populist keynote speaker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another one of the party's bright young stars.
"It's going to crystallize the very significant issue differences between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, between Republicans and Democrats," said Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Pat Shortridge, part of an 80-member state delegation that will include only one member of Congress: former presidential candidate and conservative Tea Party stalwart Michele Bachmann.
The arrival of Bachmann, together with a sizeable state contingent of Ron Paul backers from Minnesota and elsewhere, will be watched for signs of cracks in the GOP coalition, which includes social conservatives and libertarians who aren't necessarily on the same side of the divide on abortion, drug prohibition and same-sex marriage.
The majority of Minnesota's delegates is expected to vote for Paul, even though Romney has more than enough delegates to secure the nomination. "When you have principles you firmly believe in, you don't just roll over," said Paul supporter Marianne Stebbins, an Excelsior businesswoman who leads the Minnesota delegation.
Trouble spots for party
Feelings were inflamed on both sides Friday when GOP officials voted to make it harder for insurgent candidacies such as Paul's to pile up delegates in future primary and caucus elections. Said Stebbins of the Rules Committee decision, "If you can't beat them, then beat them with a stick."
A bigger trouble spot for the GOP convention is the recent furor over U.S. Rep. Todd Akin's recent remarks about "legitimate rape" and abortion, which rocked the party and blew up the Missouri Senate race. Even though Romney and Ryan have condemned Akin's remarks, Democrats charge that his stance against legal abortion, even in cases of rape, is essentially the same as the GOP's convention platform.
Obama allies also hope to turn Ryan into a poster child for the congressman's plan to transform Medicare into a premium support or voucher-like program for buying private insurance. While the two campaigns have fought over which side will better protect Medicare, some Republican strategists worry that the debate -- even if it's a draw -- could cloud the Romney campaign's singular focus on jobs and the economy.
Amid mounting polarization between the two parties, some observers are waiting to see whether the two conventions will play more to their bases -- the fired-up activists who show up at conventions -- or to the independent voters just tuning in on their televisions in a half-dozen critical swing states.
Either way, polls indicate a tight race until Nov. 6, an election that is playing out as a contest between competing visions on taxes, economic growth and entitlement spending.
The battle lines have not changed since Obama was elected in 2008. But this year Republicans are going to Tampa more confident than they were four years ago in St. Paul, when down-in-the-polls Ariz. Sen. John McCain felt compelled to throw the dice with an obscure Alaska governor named Sarah Palin.
"We weren't feeling very good about how things were going to go, and we were right," said Minnesota GOP operative Scott Cottington. "It's certainly a different mood now."
This time, Republicans say they are gathering with a breeze at their backs, a bad economy for which they feel voters are starting to blame Obama, and a sense that independents who flocked to Democrats in 2008 are now "coming home" to the GOP.
Star Tribune staff writer Corey Mitchell contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.