As he accepted the Republican nomination for president, Mitt Romney left it to tough guy Clint Eastwood to go man-to-man with President Obama's empty chair.
Which freed him up to play the nice guy: A simple, plain-talking American who was disappointed and incredulous at Obama's failures.
"I wish President Obama had succeeded, because I want America to succeed," he said. "You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you've had was the day you voted for him."
Romney is believable as the nice guy. As countless videos showed Thursday, his love for his family and desire to help others seem authentic.
What's less believable is the affectation that he's shocked, just shocked, at how badly things are going. It isn't like he's a neutral bystander, or one of the undecided voters he hopes to sway. He's the guy trying to replace Obama. Does anyone truly believe that he wanted Obama to succeed, more than he wanted Obama to fail just enough for him to snag Obama's job?
Whether voters buy Romney in the incredulous nice-guy role — the kind Tom Hanks does so well — may decide whether he wins in November. He hopes to give voice to American frustration with the president without seeming angry, so that he can continue to accuse Obama of being the angry one. The election, after all, is really a referendum on the president.
(Why, you may ask, are we reviewing his acceptance speech Thursday as if it were a scripted TV drama? Because it was. We'll do the same with Obama's speech next week.)
Romney was smart to avoid any hint of anger and to distance himself from the angrier elements of his party while shaking his head and voicing, in his wistful, disappointed tone, their complaints about Obama.
Thursday's convention lineup, like Romney's speech, attempted to play up the Romney-Ryan ticket's respect for women, especially mothers. Romney repeatedly noted that his wife, Ann, had the more important job in their household as she raised their five sons. (Which begs the question of why he didn't stop working after the first $50 million or so to be a full-time parent. But hey, his prerogative.) The praise was especially important to help the campaign further distance itself from Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape."
But Romney's appeals to women also helped humanize him. The knock on Romney is that he's some kind of automaton, willing to lay off people and even change his position on life-and-death issues when it might be politically advantageous.
But by stressing his devotion to his family, he was able to connect with voters who don't happen to share his background as a multimillionaire businessman and child of a governor and presidential candidate. While voters may be disappointed in Obama, they do find him more relatable than Romney, polls show.
Romney may have scored points when he described the hopes and frustrations that all parents share, regardless of bank account and lineage: The hope that their children will move close to home when they finish school, and the mix of joy and misery while listening to their rambunctious kids "re-enact a different world war every night."
The danger is that undecideds will believe that Romney is talking about his family so much because he knows it's the only thing he has in common with them. And will feel manipulated.
To further the illusion of averageness, he wisely sprinkled in a few regular-guy details, like how much it costs to fill up the typical massive American car. (Fifty bucks or more, according to regular Americans.)
Romney made the best attempt that he could to connect with voters, given how little he has in common with 99 percent of the people he hopes to help.
Ninety-nine percent is a loaded number, I know. But also generous. In truth, it's more like 99.9 percent. The question is whether they'll think he's being real, or just staking out another advantageous position — this time with help from his wife and kids.