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Ready to risk?

During the Republican primary season, Mr. Romney registered historically low likability ratings — in part because his detached style and discomfort with meet-and-greet retail politicking made it difficult for him to connect with voters, in part because the psychological firewall he erects between his public and private lives made it hard for his campaign to provide the public with a clear sense of his personality.

Opponents such as President Obama and Newt Gingrich have eagerly filled in the resulting Etch-a-Sketch, caricaturing Mr. Romney as an out-of-touch moneybags, a rapacious vulture capitalist and — in the memorable words of Mike Huckabee — the “guy who laid you off.”

Conservative voters have struggled with a similar question: Ideologically speaking, what does Mr. Romney actually believe?

In Massachusetts, Mr. Romney ran for Senate and governor as a moderate Republican, expressing support for abortion rights, limited gun control and gay rights; in 2008, however, he ran for president as a social conservative, expressing changes of heart on all three issues.

From an outcome-oriented, engineering perspective, the shifts made perfect sense: Massachusetts was a liberal state unlikely to elect a hard-right candidate, while Mr. Romney’s best chance to defeat primary rivals Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mr. McCain was to tack right and woo disaffected religious conservatives.

From a political standpoint, however, Mr. Romney’s reversals further muddled his already enigmatic image.

At the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, billionaire Foster Friess introduced presidential candidate Rick Santorum by joking, “A conservative, a moderate and a liberal walked into a bar — and the bartender looked at him and said, ‘What’ll it be, Mitt?’”

Mr. Romney seems aware of his political shortcomings. His recent selection of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as a running mate was hailed by many observers as uncharacteristically bold, even risky — but also can be read as a savvy, calculated move to boost enthusiasm and shore up support among the Republican conservative base.

According to a New York Times report, the Romney campaign will use the Republican National Convention as way to paint a “full and revealing portrait” of the candidate: highlighting his work as a Mormon bishop, for example, and showing biographical videos from a $2.5 million Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired theatrical stage intended to convey “openness and approachability.”

“Clearly, [the Romney campaign] has decided on some kind of tactical shift to open up more,” Mr. Helman said. “Is there a risk that you’re going to turn people off? Sure. But I think they’ve calculated the bigger risk is to have him seem sort of inhuman.”

The race for the White House is many things: democracy in action; a cable news carnival; an ingenious way of redistributing wealth from eccentric billionaires to swing-state television stations. Mostly, though, it’s an extended job interview. Mr. Romney beat out his Republican primary rivals largely on the strength of his resume — but his general election fate may be determined in part by his willingness to share the rest of himself and risk rejection in the process.