Conventions offer all candidates a potential reset moment for their candidacies. Bill Clinton got a big boost from the 1992 Democratic convention and George H.W. Bush helped turn his campaign around at the 1988 Republican convention. But neither had taken the kind of pounding on the airwaves by his rival that Romney has absorbed this summer at the hands of President Obama’s campaign.
Much of what voters know about Romney has come from negative ads and attacks, both from the Democrats and earlier from his GOP rivals during the primaries and caucuses. Romney spent little money since the primaries ended telling his own story — a decision that baffles some Democratic strategists. That means there is much more to fill in this week.
Still, Republicans are optimistic about what Romney can achieve with his acceptance speech Thursday and all the preliminary help he’ll receive on the other nights. They talk of Tampa being a breakout moment for the former Massachusetts governor, an opening unlike any other to make a genuine connection with voters.
It’s a huge opportunity — “an imperative,” said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway — but one that involves some choices. There is only so much that Romney can do for himself in the hour he’ll speak in Tampa.
Should he concentrate on making himself likable? Should he instead try to project himself as a leader and decision maker for difficult times? How much time should he spend outlining his policies? How much time should he spend criticizing the president’s record? Some Republicans say he would be well-advised to project leadership and offer a vision — and let others fill in his personal story.
Obama’s campaign won’t give Romney much space to do this. Still, he has much to gain if he handles the week skillfully.
Sarah Palin’s convention speech was a breakout moment that combined slashing attacks on Obama with trademark humor — about pit bulls, hockey moms and lipstick — that turned her into a political celebrity.
Well, Paul Ryan is no Sarah Palin and her performance isn’t one he needs to top. She benefitted from low expectations. The expectations for Ryan, who has already made his mark on the Republican Party, will be far different. “Less gee whiz and more whiz kid,” said GOP strategist Terry Holt. “His goal,” said another Republican, “should be to be a better candidate than Palin, not give one better speech.”
So far he’s succeeding on that. His introduction hasn’t moved the polls in any significant way, but he’s helped to bring enthusiasm and energy to the ticket and he’s comfortable on the stump. But he’s brought some baggage with him in the form of his budget and Medicare plans. How he handles all that will be the lens through which his performance will be measured.
Like Romney, Ryan can do a lot of things with his speech. If he could sell his Medicare plan, that alone would be a huge plus for Romney, but it’s doubtful one speech can do that. He can try to make a compelling case for entitlement reform.
He can show himself as the party’s new Jack Kemp (for whom he once worked), an optimistic apostle for cutting spending, growth-oriented economics. Can he say “eat your peas” with a smile?
In the end, however, Ryan’s speech shouldn’t really be about Ryan. As Democrat Tad Devine put it: “Ryan needs to understand that his job is to sell Romney, not himself. If he does that, he can help.”
The summer has been another reminder that the Republican Party is still fighting internal battles. There’s the tea party vs. the establishment, and then there’s Missouri Rep. Todd Akin and some of his fellow religious conservatives against, well, against almost the entire party hierarchy.
Romney has struggled to consolidate the party. But this isn’t Houston 1992, which featured Pat Buchanan’s culture wars speech. It isn’t 1980 with Jimmy Carter chasing Ted Kennedy around the stage in New York in the hope of getting a photo of unity. It certainly isn’t 1964 in San Francisco with the Goldwater insurgents routing the Rockefeller regulars.
Look for the media to try to keep the Akin abortion story alive, at least toward the start of the convention. Any attention paid to Akin and the abortion plank in the GOP platform isn’t helpful to Romney.
But Republican Reed Galen believes the near-universal condemnation of the Missouri congressman and Senate nominee makes the convention well inoculated from any real damage.
Tea party problems are less likely. Romney and the RNC have bent over backward to accommodate Ron Paul in an effort to keep his libertarian followers happy. Paul was scheduled to hold a rally on Sunday. His son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, had a speaking slot Monday before the day’s events were canceled. Tuesday’s session was to feature a Ron Paul video. Beyond that, Ryan gives Romney a bridge to tea party activists.
Bottom line: This is a Republican Party that, whatever divisions it may have, is united in its desire to defeat Obama in November. That alone will provide all the energy and enthusiasm Romney needs in the hall in Tampa.
The New Jersey governor is one of the party’s biggest stars, and a showman to boot. That means his keynote address, expected for Tuesday night, will be one of the most highly anticipated events of the convention.
Christie is fully capable of stealing the limelight — and of overplaying his hand. Blunt talk comes naturally, especially in unscripted moments. He has been one of Obama’s harshest critics, especially for what he says is the president’s lack of leadership on debt, deficits and entitlements. Democrats are bracing for a very tough speech aimed at the president from Christie.
Some Republicans tried to persuade Christie to run for president this year, and he’ll be measured as a future presidential candidate while on the stage in Tampa. But Tom Rath, a Romney adviser, said there’s no worry that the governor will try to overshadow the presumptive nominee.
“He is an extremely effective advocate for Romney,” Rath said. “The press conference in Hanover, N.H., when he endorsed Romney was one of the most successful moments of advocacy for Romney in the nomination fight.”
There are scheduled be other notable speeches, Ann Romney for one and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio another. Still, Christie’s speech could be a showstopper and one quite satisfying to the Romney campaign. “Christie doesn’t conjure up images of Goldilocks,” said California GOP strategist Rob Stutzman. “But I think he’ll be just right.”
August in Tampa isn’t exactly sweater vest weather, but Rick Santorum, the last man to fall to Romney in the nomination battle, will be looking for ways to stand out in the crowd.
“He’s fallen off the face of the earth,” said Bill Lacy, the director of the Robert J. Dole Institute at the University of Kansas. Santorum’s time in Tampa, he added, “may decide whether his campaign was a complete fluke or he is still relevant in GOP politics.”
Republican strategists predict Santorum will have multiple priorities. His first goal should be to demonstrate the utmost loyalty to Romney, which may not come naturally. When he finally endorsed his onetime rival in the spring, he did it in a lengthy press release that didn’t mention the endorsement until near the end.
But if he has his eyes on another presidential campaign, as early as 2016 if Obama wins reelection, he’ll be looking to cement his credentials as the leader of the social conservative wing of the party. The question is whether he will continue to be the leader of a cause, speaking mostly for one segment of the conservative movement, or try to expand his appeal.
Santorum now has plenty of competition and will have to fight for attention. Ryan’s elevation to the ticket gives him instant standing. Christie and Rubio will command the spotlight in ways Santorum may not. As GOP strategist Jonathan Collegio put it, “Santorum’s goal is to position himself as the conservative standard bearer against Ryan, Rubio and Christie, should Romney lose. Not an enviable task.”
If all goes to plan, it shouldn’t be close. Jobs and the economy have been the core message of Romney’s campaign from the very beginning. But the party’s leader struggled to keep the economy front and center amid numerous distractions and Obama’s attacks.
GOP Strategists Whit Ayres and Jon McHenry listed the top five issues that Romney should be talking about in Tampa and beyond: “economy, economy, not spending money we don’t have, saving Medicare, and the economy.”
Ryan’s budget proposal has made it essential for Romney to deal aggressively with the issue of reforming Medicare. His campaign advisers claim they would rather have a fight over Medicare in August than in October and Obama’s team is delighted to take it on now and then. Republicans think it’s a fight they can win — or at least play to a draw. “Seniors are ready to be told the truth and smart enough to see through the demagoguing,” said GOP strategist Sally Bradshaw.
Other Republicans say Medicare may be a necessary fight now but the economy is, long term, the winning issue. Still others say Romney and Ryan need to make a pivot on the Medicare fight and link it more directly to the issue of debt and deficits. “Medicare within the context of the debt,” said one GOP strategist. “Not Medicare as a stand-alone issue.”
Even if Romney does keep his principle focus on the economy, he will be under pressure to give people a much clearer sense of what he wants to do and why that will work better than what Obama has tried. Focusing on the economy may be a no-brainer. Doing it consistently and effectively remains the challenge.
There are lots of ways they might. The question is whether they have a real strategy to get those few remaining swing voters.
A recent study by The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation reminded that swing voters dislike the partisan infighting in Washington. Romney and Ryan may try to stress their willingness to work with Democrats, but the tone of the campaign, on both sides, has reinforced the idea that partisanship is permanent.
The Republicans are more likely to ask those swing voters whether their lives are better after almost four years of Obama’s presidency and say Romney-Ryan can do better. One strategist offered a six-word summation of that message: “He [Obama] couldn’t fix it. We will.” Another offered a seven-word message: “He’s lost. We know the way home.” Perhaps Romney can speak about Obama’s record with a “more in sorrow than in anger” tone as a way to appeal.
Focusing on Romney as a person could help as well. The more comfortable those swing voters feel about him, the more receptive they could be to his economic message. That’s a role for Ann Romney when she addresses the convention, and there will be many other speakers — former Olympians, members of Romney’s church, ordinary folks — who will be filling in his profile.
One thing that won’t attract swing voters is harsh talk about social issues. Romney has done little since the primaries to soften his positions on immigration. The Akin controversy put new light on the GOP’s abortion platform plank. Romney and Ryan won’t run away from the party’s positions but will have to tread carefully.
It’s certainly possible, given how close the polls have been all summer. But any lead could disappear quickly once the Democrats take the stage in Charlotte.
Convention bounces have been closely studied over the years, but it’s not clear that history is an effective guide these days. Romney got virtually no bounce out of the vice presidential announcement. And with the conventions back to back, as they were four years ago, the race could look very much as it does today when we get to early September.
The other wild card is what the Democrats do during the GOP convention to try to suppress any gains for Romney. Gone are the days when the opposition candidate spent a quiet week during their rival’s convention. On television, this may look almost like a typical week of campaigning — with Obama on the road part of the week and Biden in Florida for several days offering counterprogramming.
Typically, the challenger can expect a slightly bigger bounce, simply because he is less well known than the incumbent. But as Democrat Craig Varoga said, Romney will be “quickly un-reintroduced” by the Democrats in Charlotte.
Some GOP strategists are optimistic that their ticket will have the lead. Others say what’s important to watch are Romney’s personal ratings. If they turn upward, that would be a big help for the GOP ticket.