If politics is a beauty pageant for ugly people, political conventions are the moment when the winner — dressed by a coterie of consultants — gets to gush about his family and talk breathlessly about his excitement for what lies ahead.

Yet the Republican National Convention last week was so devoid of substance — despite the constant refrain that only Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are “serious” about America’s problems — that it more closely resembled the short platitudes beauty queens give about world peace and care packages for troops.

Or it would have, if Mitt Romney had bothered to mention the men and women in uniform serving America thousands of miles from home, something the right would have already turned into campaign ads had Barack Obama done the same. And so, after a generally well-produced convention that changed nothing, Romney now needs a major blunder by Obama to win the election.

Republicans spend a lot of time comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter, implying that dissatisfaction with the economy will sweep their candidate into office, as it did for Ronald Reagan. But Reagan was the “Great Communicator,” with polished speaking skills and comfort in front of the camera, even if it came from starring in B-list movies. Romney, on the other hand, has all the charisma of a management consultant.

That makes him more like John Kerry, whose patrician accent, Senate haughtiness and predilection for windsurfing made him an oddity to the average voter. It allowed George W. Bush — hardly aneveryman himself— and his allies in the absurdly named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to define Kerry in the summer of 2004.

Fast forward eight years and we see that, although the Koch Brothers and Crossroads GPS have more money, the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA has set the agenda this campaign season. It has defined Romney with attacks on his founding of Bain Capital and the indifference he shows to the problems faced by the forgotten middle class.

For someone running such a cautious and boring campaign — The Economist hit the nail on the head when it described his economic platform as “Fifty Shades of Gray without the sex” — Romney has given his opponents plenty of fodder. He inexplicably failed to clean up his tax returns, a relatively easy process, or to produce a coherent picture of his tenure at Bain.

He spent the summer indulging in hobbies that were a bit too 1 percent, heading to London to watch a dressage horse compete and spending what seemed like weeks on end at his home on LakeWinnipesaukee. (For those keeping track, that’s not the one with the car elevator.)

President Obama, on the other hand, has skillfully turned campaign sideshows into useful tools. Most recently, that meant a week of pillorying the Republicans over Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s bizarre comments about rape and abortion.

To win, Romney needed to establish himself as a credible alternative to Obama on most issues and better than the president on the economy. But for the first time in recent memory, Democratic attacks have turned the conversation from taxes and spending to the broader and more liberal-friendly theme of “fairness.” Instead of being about tax cuts, entitlement reform or other issues that might favor Romney, the campaign is following the narrative Obama needs: the people versus the powerful.

That’s why the Republicans needed to relaunch in Tampa with a narrative that stresses what they see as their advantages: Romney’s economic competence and the party’s correct fiscal policies. Last week’s event was a well-produced convention, but it failed to move the needle on the narrative. And for Romney, time is now running out.

In the 1980s, Reagan used debates to convince a skeptical country that it could trust a right-wing actor. Romney’s problem isn’t that voters don’t know him, however, it’s that they know him as a corporate raider who doesn’t care about the middle class. No debate performance, no matter how good, is going to change that.

By not changing the terms of 2012’s debate when he had the stage, Romney’s last good chance to take the White House seems to have slipped away.

Evan Hollander is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. He is Senior Sports Editor of THE HOYA.

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