SBS News Online

By Ron Sutton

The United States presidential campaign is about to kick into high gear.

On Monday, the traditional Republican National Convention will put the November 6th election front and centre in the American conscience.

What's at play?

It is a presidential race that conventional wisdom suggests the Republicans and Mitt Romney should win easily.

Not only is unemployment in the United States still at more than 8 per cent, but it also is rising -- in 44 of the 50 states just last month.

And little more than two months away from national elections, the latest opinion polls show three in five people in the country feel the U-S economy is getting worse.

Yet, as the Republican National Convention approaches, U-S politics expert Greg Barton, of Monash University, suggests it just is not working out the way it is supposed to.

"The incumbent should be in real trouble, given the financial figures. In the conventional wisdom, he really should be in a position where he would struggle to be re-elected. And yet, at the moment, it appears to be a close race."

Mr Barton says "that's because the President is regarded as a more likable, a more approachable, guy who you can connect with more than Romney. I mean, the President has his own problems, in terms of being seen to be very intellectual and a little bit aloof, but, compared with Romney, he's Mr Charisma."

That is one image Mitt Romney will try to dispel as the Republican convention unfolds over four days, starting on Monday 27 August in Tampa, Florida.

The Democrats will follow with their convention a week later (September 3-6) in Charlotte, North Carolina.

By then, the Republicans hope to have gained a boost in the opinion polls that currently show President Barack Obama maintaining a slim lead in his bid for re-election.

Doctor David Smith, at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre, says, while the conventions are not as important as they once were, they still can be pivotal.

"Something like 22 per cent of Americans watch at least some of the conventions at some point. And, so, for most people, this is the first time they really start paying attention to what's going on. And, so, in a sense, the campaign actually does get serious from the conventions onward."

Dr Smith says "more people watch at least some of the conventions than watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony -- or, at least, that's what happened four years ago. So, even though it's not like it was, say, in the 1960s, where you actually had upwards of 60 per cent of the population watching it, it's still a major event."

The Republicans are expected to roll out their big names for the cameras, from billionaire and short-lived candidate Donald Trump to 2016 hopeful Chris Christie.

At least two leading female politicians will join Mr Romney's wife Ann as speakers, as the Republicans try to cut into Mr Obama's advantage among female voters.

But Dr John Hart, a specialist in U-S elections from the Australian National University, suggests Mr Romney has bigger obstacles to overcome than just the women's vote.

He foresees the former Massachusetts governor trying, foremost, to seal his standing with the party's conservative wing at the convention.

Typically, over the years, the Republican candidate has used the convention to try to win back the centre politically after moving to the right to win the vote within the party.

But Dr Hart says Mr Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate shows he is still pursuing conservative backing as the convention beckons.

"That's the way that I would interpret it, that he's given up on moving back to the centre. And, indeed, some of the positions that Mitt Romney took in order to get the Republican nomination, by moving quite a way to the right and trying to win over the Tea Party element of the Republican Party, it makes it very, very hard for him to come back to the centre. He really is in a difficult position on a lot of issues."

John Hart compares Mitt Romney's move with Republican candidate John McCain's decision in the 2008 election to take Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential choice.

Senator McCain, like Mr Romney, felt the need to strengthen his conservative support at the convention just to get the Republican vote out on election day.

"He may well have succeeded in reinvigorating the conservative base with Sarah Palin, but the cost of that was losing the independents. And I think Romney's in the same position. He's made the decision. I think the choice of Ryan is very clear and very strategic and, I also think, very ill-advised, from his point of view. But he's made it. I think the only way he can go is by presenting the image of a very conservative party."

But how to do that effectively?

David Smith, from the U-S Studies Centre, says the Republicans' focus on the ailing economy has let the Democrats, in turn, articulate who the Republicans are.

He predicts they will use the convention to try to define their party in their own terms, such as the party of small business.

But Dr Smith suggests Mr Romney has little room for showing himself as any different from what the public already sees.

"I don't know how much Romney can actually do at this point, because he is what he is. He has been running on his previous record as a successful businessman, which the Democrats have tried to paint him as a vulture capitalist. So I don't know what Romney can actually do to get away from that."

Dr Smith says "he can't compete with Obama on charisma, or personality, or anything like that. He needs to be able to present himself as this really sound economic manager. And what he did by adding Paul Ryan to the ticket was just to try to deepen this image of competence, I suppose. And I think that's all he really can do at this point."

It is not a rosy picture for an election that, on past logic, is supposed to be so easy for the Republicans.

Professor Barton, a political scientist at Monash, says adding Paul Ryan could make up the difference -- but could just as easily have the opposite effect.

"I think there's a real chance that Paul Ryan will be seen to actually make up for some of the deficit of Romney, some of the charisma deficit. He's seen as a very creditable fiscal conservative, a real intellectual. That may really be a boost to Romney. Of course, there's also the flip side, the Paul Ryan depicted in ads as pushing granny off the cliff for being tough on Medicare. That may turn swing voters away."

And, Professor Barton reminds, even if the pair's performance at the convention does provide a quick boost in the polls, the Democratic convention is just one week away.