TAMPA —Now we know why political conventions are scripted.
Mitt Romney delivered a good and personal acceptance speech Thursday night. His campaign produced a sterling video about the candidate. People who know Romney offered testimony about his values, his compassion and his business acumen. But all anyone seemed to be talking about when the convention ended was Clint Eastwood and an empty chair.
The discomfort of Ann Romney, appearing on “CBS This Morning” on Friday, spoke volumes about how the Eastwood moment was received. She tried her best to be positive, but she clearly was surprised by what she had witnessed onstage. As the broadcast networks were opening their prime-time coverage, what Americans saw was not that well-produced video but a celebrated actor talking — sometimes talking trash — to an empty chair that was a proxy for President Obama.
Give the Romney campaign some credit for the week. Most of the convention was smooth and professionally produced. Russ Schriefer, the campaign adviser who oversaw the message operation in Tampa, skillfully repackaged four nights into three after then-Tropical Storm Isaac seemed ready to descend upon the area. The stage was handsome, and multiple high-definition screens behind the speakers added impressively to the program.
But political campaigns operate in a beastly environment, which is one way to describe the insatiable appetite of a political and media world that consumes information and events at a breathtaking pace and stops to focus when something bizarre, unexpected, spectacular or foolish occurs. Cable and talk radio seized on. Twitter blew up over it. News Web sites saw a spike in traffic on anything Eastwood related.
And so, in the aftermath of an evening that overall accomplished much of what everyone said Romney needed to do with his convention, the beast was focused on Eastwood as much or more than on Romney’s speech or anything else from the show.
Like debates, conventions are a time to elevate out of the daily scrum. They provide a moment when candidates and campaign advisers get the opportunity to speak to the widest audience, to people not hanging on every small development, snarky tweet or sarcastic e-mail from one campaign about another.
But it’s not as though the beast disappears at those moments. While the Romney campaign was feeding what it thought was valuable and new content to voters who still don’t know a lot about the GOP nominee — the biographical video, and emotional testimonials from people whom Romney has helped — it unexpectedly served up an unscripted moment that proved irresistible to the inside world.
The performance by Eastwood, the famously gravelly voiced actor and director, may have gone down well in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. But it looked bizarre on the television screen.
Will all this matter much? Probably not. It was a screen shot from a larger video — vivid and memorable but not necessarily lasting. Romney and his advisers no doubt believe they got from their week in Tampa much of what they had hoped for.
The reviews of Romney’s speech were generally very positive. Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential running mate, drew universally negative grades from media fact-checkers for a number of statements, but helped fire up the conservative base.
Ann Romney was widely praised for her speech, particularly the latter portions that dealt with her husband, their marriage and their family. She remains his most potent asset in helping to humanize him — and offers some steely resistance to critics from the outside.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who introduced Romney on Thursday, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who delivered the keynote address on Tuesday, played their roles effectively, though Rubio got better reviews than did Christie.
But what happened with Eastwood is a reminder of a larger reality about campaigns these days. No matter how scripted, no matter how carefully planned, no matter how well executed, there are always things that go wrong — and when they do, those events can become momentarily supersized, overshadowing all the good things a campaign has done.
That has been part of the story of the campaign so far. It’s described repeatedly as a big election, a clash of competing visions, a contest between two candidates with dramatically different visions and starkly different views about the role of government and business, the public sector and the private sector. But little things keep getting in the way — temporary controversies or lingering discussions about issues that don’t rise to that level.
The beast keeps complaining about that, asking why the candidates can’t keep their focus on the big picture and the big issues. But when Clint Eastwood walks onstage and starts talking to an empty chair, the urge to focus on it with the mega-wattage that Twitter and cable are capable of — and via all the other ways in which political communication takes place — is irresistible.
Eastwood will be forgotten pretty quickly — not the image of him onstage, but the significance of the moment in the campaign. Romney and Ryan left Tampa on Friday morning. Obama and the Democrats will start to flow into Charlotte over the weekend.
The next chapter in the campaign will begin. The big debate will reengage. Attention will shift back to the issues that really count — until the next Eastwood-like moment distracts everyone again.
For more Dan Balz columns, go to postpolitics.com.