At Republican reality show, which up-and-comer has the X-factor?

For all the typical cult-of-personality fuss this week about Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, there are secondary and tertiary agendas at work at the Republican National Convention, including the appraisal of the party’s bench. The convention functions a bit like a reality show, a singing competition, only with speechifying.

Who can own the room? Who’s got that special twinkle? Who bombs? Speakers have just a few minutes to perform. Welcome to “Republicans Got Talent!”

Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, will get a prime-time slot Thursday when he introduces Romney and, more significantly, introduces himself to much of the American public.

Chris Christie, the Springsteen-loving New Jersey governor who has almost single-handedly put good eaters back in prime time, got his shot Tuesday when he was given the keynoting job. Reviews were mixed; he talked a lot about himself for a long time and may have served up a little too much white meat.

The only Republican of that generation who shines even brighter these days is, obviously, Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who has ridden his budget road maps to superstardom. Any discussion of future presidential hopefuls within the GOP starts with those three.

There is a belief in the hall that the Republicans have a deeper bench than the Democrats. Ask Rudy Giuliani. The former New York City mayor was, not so long ago, a presidential candidate, but now he has settled into the role of elder statesman.

“I think we have more talent,” Giuliani said in the convention hall. “I think we have more women than they have, which is a little strange, since they seem to talk about a war on women.”

He mentioned Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor; Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico; Kelly Ayotte, the senator from New Hampshire; and Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state. The Democrats? Got no one, Giuliani said.

“I think it was an admission that they had nobody when they asked Charlie Crist to speak at their convention,” he said of the former Florida governor and Republican-turned-independent. “He’s sort of a Republican reject.”

Holding forth in the corridor, the bookish columnist George Will said: “Young people are interested in ideas. In June 1980, I believe it was, Pat Moynihan said, ‘Something strange has happened in America. The Republicans are now the party of ideas.’ ”

The next generation of Republican talent, Will said, includes Rubio, Ryan, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The Democratic names that come to Will’s mind instantly: Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, and Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland. “We’ll wait and see if the O’Malleys and Cuomos can generate this kind of excitement,” Will said. But he doubts it, because the GOP stars are more likely to be anti-establishment — and thus more exciting to younger voters. “The Cuomos and O’Malleys seem to have been in the mainstream of their party for 30 years, and that’s not exciting.”

The next big Republican star may not even be in the hall. Recall that Barack Obama, a virtual unknown in his national party, struggled to get into the Democratic National Convention in 2000, just four years before he exploded into stardom with a prime-time convention speech.

The Democrats will have their chance to show their talent next week in Charlotte. But the brightest of the young Democratic stars is already president. He’ll either become a one-term president — a position from which a comeback has historically been nearly impossible (don’t tell Grover Cleveland) — or he’ll become term-limited, destined to be an elder statesman when still middle-aged.

“We’ve got more in the governors’ offices, and it’s not just sheer numbers — it’s in wattage, talent,” said Tony Fratto, a former spokesman in the George W. Bush administration who showed up at an event on foreign aid Wednesday in a beautiful auditorium on the edge of Ybor City.

Governors, he said, have special advantages in creating national profiles: “You run things. You’re an executive. You carry a certain level of authority that’s hard to do when you’re a member of Congress.”

And what about Condi? She’s a GOP heavyweight who could have a position in a Romney Cabinet and — who knows? She was on the stage as part of a panel discussing foreign aid and the developing world and didn’t get fazed when two women from Code Pink stood up and shouted enunciations, with one calling her a war criminal. “The wonderful thing about democracy is people do get to say their piece,” Rice said calmly, to much applause, after the first disruption.

Just down the street, at the Improv Comedy Theater, a bunch of young people, including some of America’s most prominent political progeny, gathered for wonky, chewy, eye-glazing discussions about stuff like education reform.

Emerging from a VIP section came a good-looking, tall, jut-jawed guy who looked like a politician, or someone who ought to be a politician. But it’s a guy who manages apartment buildings. His name is Josh Romney. Yes, one of the five Romney sons. George P. Bush, a lawyer and entrepreneur, is a few yards away. Jeb’s son. And beyond Bush, coming this way, looking terrific: Chelsea Clinton.

The political aristocracy!

The young-person event, sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and Microsoft, touched on a GOP conundrum: The Republicans may believe they have a lot of youngish political talent – 35, 40, 45 years old — but there’s a whole generation of much-younger voters, the “millennials,” that doesn’t particularly align with the GOP’s ideology.

Moderator Chuck Todd pointed out to Josh Romney that young people in general have favored the Democrats because of social issues. “I think there’s room in the Republican Party for people of a lot of different backgrounds on social issues,” Romney said.

A neutral, deft response. Talent!

Todd noted that two generations of Romneys have already held office — George Romney and his son Mitt. Will there be a third?

“You’ll have to ask Tagg,” Josh answered. A gentle joke.

You have to want it, bad, to run for high office. Politics has become a blood sport and not everyone wants to play, which may be why Chelsea Clinton is not a politician but a journalist.

Onstage, Aaron Schock, the young, two-term, famously buff congressman from Illinois — he does the P90X workout with Ryan — said he was never the smartest kid in school. But he had a different advantage. “I’ll outwork any of my opponents,” he said.

That’s the kind of guy to watch.

Any prediction about the next big star is bound to be wrong. Politics isn’t deterministic — as George P. Bush knows.

His father, Jeb, had been perceived as the torch-carrier for his generation. But in 1994, Jeb lost his race for governor of Florida and older brother George W. at the same time won the governorship of Texas. The wheel of history turned. Jeb eventually became Florida’s governor, but at this point he would have to make the case that the country needs another Bush administration.

When a reporter reminded George P. of the early media predictions of his father’s presidential future, he answered with a smile, “Timing is everything.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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