Who is Mitt Romney?

Reality isn't supposed to intrude on a major political party's national convention, so after weathering the bluster of a Missouri Senate candidate last week, Republicans are understandably frustrated by the presence of yet another storm, this one the literal kind. Tropical Storm Isaac poses a serious threat to the Gulf states and could easily worsen and even slam into New Orleans — on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Republicans must feel as if a higher power (or at least the Weather Channel) is out to get them. It's one thing to lose a day of action at the Republican National Convention (the major networks weren't planning to televise tonight's proceedings anyway, and anything that potentially shortens speeches is probably good for all involved), but it's quite another for a genuine disaster to strike. Not only would the convention losing ratings, it would provide President Barack Obama a golden headline: "Administration rushes to help Gulf Coast while politicians fiddle in Tampa."


But the real losers from that scenario — in addition to the storm's victims, of course — would be the nation's voters. Yes, the Republicans are putting on what amounts to an extended infomercial in Florida this week for their ticket, but it's an infomercial that is worth watching.

Polls show that the race for the White House is in a virtual tie. But while the incumbent is a known commodity to most Americans, Mitt Romney is not. That's one reason while President Obama is faring so well in the polls despite the nation's continued high unemployment and economic uncertainties. People know him and like him on a personal level. Mr. Romney? Not so much.

We would never recommend voters, Republican, Democrat, independent or other, make decisions based solely on what they might hear at a political convention anymore than we'd endorse the Ginsu knife or the Veg-O-Matic because of a good sales pitch on late-night TV. Long gone are the days when political conventions were a place of smoke-filled rooms with deals getting cut and important decisions being made. They have evolved into organized dog-and-pony shows where party faithful have a forum to make an extended argument on behalf of their candidates.

Frankly, as a news event, they are almost always disappointing. Surprises rarely, if ever, intervene; the whole is too carefully choreographed for actual "news" to ever break out. And so convention coverage tends to lean on either fact-checking or horse race analysis. The real news is that the parties get their speeches and multimedia presentations broadcast in prime time.

Perhaps, those who live in some of the early primary states feel they know Mr. Romney from those hard-fought Republican contests, but most of us do not. Party strategists talk about the GOP convention as a chance to "reintroduce" their candidate to the country. It's about time. Minor reality show cast members are better known to the general public.

There are reasons for public hesitation over Mr. Romney. He can come across as cool and wooden. He has been less than forthcoming about his professional career, personal finances and tax returns. His religion, Mormonism, is poorly understood by most Americans. His positions on some high-profile issues — including access to health care and abortion rights — have changed markedly over the course of his political career.

One might expect Mr. Romney to use Tampa as a chance to position himself as a more centrist candidate and not so much the captive of the tea party and conservatives that he seemed during the primary season. His recent support for public financing of presidential campaigns and willingness to own up to "Romneycare," his health insurance reforms in Massachusetts upon which "Obamacare" were modeled, suggest that might happen. But then again, his choice of the highly ideological Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate argues against this.

Democrats should refrain from gloating over the weather and the GOP's misfortunes. They may face their own storms in Charlotte, when the Democratic National Convention convenes one week later. Unemployment in North Carolina is running at 9.7 percent, and Mr. Obama is expected to accept the nomination at Bank of America Stadium even as Bank of America is laying off workers. Same-sex marriage lost big there, which may spur gay-rights protests, and convention planners admit they've fallen millions of dollars short of the event's fundraising needs.

Still, we hope people will tune in this week to hear what is being said (and not being said) in Tampa, particularly on Thursday night when Mr. Romney is scheduled to accept the nomination. Who is Mitt Romney? That's a question that deserves a clearer answer — even when it's spun by his operatives, his party and his supporters.