Romney must find his inner Clinton.

Mitt Romney is an imperfect candidate who has been badly served by a strategy that has failed to contest President Obama’s predictable attacks, leaving the former governor poorly positioned heading into the conventions. What he must do now is follow in the footsteps of another governor who challenged a sitting president and used his convention to revive his chances: Bill Clinton.

After Romney secured the nomination, the Obama campaign launched a concerted negative advertising campaign to tar Romney’s reputation. Romney was then a relatively unknown challenger, and these attacks threatened to define his image. And yet, instead of pushing back against the allegations that he was a callous multimillionaire, Team Romney opted to launch its own attacks. Unsurprisingly, conceding the framing of Romney’s biography, record, and policies to well-researched and aggressive opponents hasn’t advanced his cause. His favorability numbers are astoundingly bad, especially among undecided voters. In the modern era, no candidate has won the presidency with a net-negative favorability rating, and yet Romney finds himself at worse than -6 percent. He is even less popular than Michael Dukakis was at a similar point in 1988. 

But Romney has one big opportunity to turn things around: the convention. Successful conventions can help candidates undo damage and improve their images heading into the heart of the general election campaign. After allegations of infidelity, inhaling marijuana, and draft dodging, Clinton’s favorability numbers fell to an astonishingly low 16 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll in June of 1992. His approval ratings were still underwater after a summer-long rebranding effort and a successful vice presidential roll-out. But Clinton erased lingering doubts with a successful pitch to voters—the Man From Hope strategy—and he took a decisive lead that he never relinquished.

Can Romney do something similar? No one would mistake Romney’s political skills for Clinton’s, and the conventions are occurring much later than they did in 1992, which might mean that negative impressions of Romney have solidified to a greater extent. But for many undecided voters, the convention will be the first time they take notice of the Republican nominee, and if he gives the speech of his life, he could be positioned to challenge Obama heading into the fall. If he misses his chance in Tampa, however, Romney will be hard pressed to prevail in November.