WASHINGTON (AP) — Barack Obama needs to remind voters why they loved him in 2008. Mitt Romney needs for voters to get to know and like him better.
With polls showing the presidential race so close, each candidate wants badly to host a flawless political convention in the next two weeks to gain the upper hand for the campaign's fall homestretch.
These splashy conventions are intended to rally the thousands of core Republican supporters who will flock to Tampa, Fla., next week and the Democratic loyalists who will descend on Charlotte, N.C., the following week. But such gatherings also are an opportunity to send carefully scripted messages to the millions of Americans watching on TV or on the Internet.
To that end, Republicans and Democrats alike agree that Obama and Romney must try to strike a balance: fire up their backers without alienating the undecided voters who tend to decide close elections. How each accomplishes that task — or falls short — will have a major influence on the rest of the campaign.
In a sign of Obama's strategy for Charlotte, he has been targeting key demographics, tailoring his speeches and his ad campaign to women, older voters and, most recently, young people who may not have been old enough to cast ballots four years ago. The hope is to pick up support at the margins in what's expected to be a tight contest until the end.
Romney, in turn, is certain to surround himself with his large family in Tampa — five sons, five daughters-in-law and 18 grandchildren — while emphasizing shared American values as he works to illustrate his life beyond his buttoned-down businessman image. Expect lots of focus on his private sector resume, Olympics leadership and tenure as Massachusetts governor.
Outside events could add a wrinkle to the best-laid plans.
A potential hurricane is bearing down. If it hits Florida in a catastrophic way, both Romney and Obama must respond, mindful to balance an opportunity to show leadership with the risk of politicizing a natural disaster. Romney would have to decide whether to cancel or postpone his convention. And Obama would have to weigh whether to make a presidential visit to a damage site — possibly drawing criticism for raining anew on his Republican rival's parade.
A look at Obama and Romney's likely to-do lists as they head into their conventions.
—Rekindle the fire. Obama swept into the White House after building a broad coalition of support, boosting turnout among minorities and young voters while attracting disaffected Republicans and many independents with promises of a new style of politics. Four years later, he is an incumbent president with a record of policies that divide the nation. Polls show his support among minorities and young voters has waned.
—Remind Democrats of his liberal accomplishments. Obama needs liberals to work on his behalf this fall. But the party's left wing has complained often, despite actions he's taken on its core issues. He signed a measure making it easier for women to sue for pay discrimination. He's ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He repealed a ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military and became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage.
—Brag with humility. Even backers acknowledge that Obama at times can come across as arrogant, a certain turnoff for on-the-fence voters, especially in tough economic times. There's also a risk in coming across as overly confident of victory in November. So the president is likely to walk a careful line between promoting his administration's accomplishments and paying deference to others who played a role in his successes.
—Cast Romney as unacceptable. Obama is likely to leave the dirty work of damaging Romney to speakers who will take the podium in the days before him. The message is designed to remind voters of the choice they face — including accusations that Romney flip-flops on issues, reminders of the vast personal wealth that sets him apart from most voters and criticism of his lack of foreign policy experience. Obama advisers don't anticipate that he'll use his acceptance speech to linger on Romney.
—Introduce himself to voters. Americans still don't know a lot about him even though he's essentially been running for president for almost a decade. So expect a convention focused on Romney's business career, his time at the helm of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and his tenure as Massachusetts governor. His family will play a prominent role, as will close associates who can vouch for him as both a person and a leader. He hopes to spend the four days making the case for why voters should give him the job, and countering Democratic characterizations of him as a heartless, calculating business tycoon.
—Introduce the vice presidential nominee. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan was unknown to most Americans when Romney selected the energetic young, GOP policy wonk as his running mate. Over the past two weeks, Ryan's controversial budget proposals — and conflicts with Romney on policy matters — have dominated the political debate. Democrats have fueled that fire. Romney — and Ryan — now get a second chance to make that first impression.
—Convince independent voters he's their ally. Romney heads to his convention with 41 percent approval among independent voters, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. Romney, a Republican who won the governorship in liberal Massachusetts, will almost certainly need to boost that rating among these voters, since they are the ones who often decide elections, if he is to have any chance at toppling Obama.
—Fire up the base. Romney was never the first choice of cultural conservatives, and some still eye him suspiciously because of his reversals on issues they hold dear, such as abortion and gay rights. But the convention gives him a chance to promote the parts of his record that appeal to this powerful bloc of voters, who help knock on doors and make phone calls. His selection of Ryan, a hero to the right, already has started to help him further this objective.
—Prolong his "bounce" of support into the fall — if he can manage to create one. Deadening it will be part of Obama's job one week later.