For politicians in both parties, speaking at their party‚??s national convention is the once-every-four-years challenge worthy of the cult of the Five Rings.
President Barack Obama‚??s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention launched the young state senator onto the national stage. Another president, Ronald W. Reagan, then an out-of-work actor and an out-of-work governor, took the stage at the 1976 GOP convention at its close and gave such powerful and thoughtful remarks that everyone in the hall and watching on TV was left wondering why President Gerald R. Ford was just made the nominee and not the Gipper.
Yet, for every boffo convention address, there are dozens of disasters. In 1996, Sen. Robert J. Dole included in his acceptance speech a segment where he called out Republicans who disagreed with the platform, and suggested they could leave the convention, a move that dampened enthusiasm and closed the convention on a defensive downer.
The speakers lined up for Tampa fall into four categories: The Near Veeps, Voices of the Sunshine State, Women in (Political) Combat and The Ticket. One other man, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), is his own category: Hostage. Just as the Romans held the sons of the barbarian kings hostage to guarantee their treaties, Romney has the career of the Paul the Younger in a cage. As long as Paul the Elder behaves, the Son will prosper among the Romans.
For some politicians, the convention speaking slot is a sign their career is moving forward. For others, such as those Near Veeps, it means they lost out on getting on the national ticket with W. Mitt Romney. For the Near Veeps, their speech may decide if they have to wait out the next four years, or will they get a role in the new Romney White House.
Gov. Chris Christie: The governor of New Jersey is a twirling hurricane of a man who had strong advocates inside and outside the campaign to get the VP nod. The former federal prosecutor will deliver the convention‚??s Keynote Address, aimed at firing up the delegates. The subtext of the speech will set the tone for Christie‚??s own run for the White House in 2016 or 2020. Christie can deliver a stemwinder, to be sure, and look for him to frame the big issues and challenges ahead. He will shine, however, when he explains how the American people have the will and the fortitude to meet the challenges head-on.
Newt Gingrich: OK, the former speaker is not speaking. But, he is holding Newt University workshops for delegates. Instead of addressing an arena, Gingrich will lead policy workshops in face-to-face interactions‚??where his intellect and quick thinking are most lethal.
Rick Santorum: Santorum as a vice-presidential candidate with Romney would have been a bold move. Santorum is a relentless campaigner and appeals to a lot of Americans who would otherwise take a pass on Romney. The problem is Romney cannot warm up to Santorum. After the former Pennsylvania senator‚??s endorsement of Romney there was such an awkward chill, Santorum insiders thought he would not go to Tampa at all. Kudos to Team Romney for saying and doing all the right things to give Santorum his spot. Santorum‚??s job will be to bridge the ‚??appeal gap‚?Ě between Romney and Santorum‚??s supporters.
Voices of the Sunshine State
It is only right that a battleground state like Florida would have its people front and center. In the last 10 president ial elections, the state has gone Republican seven times, but things change. The state that easily gave Richard Nixon 17 electoral votes in 1972 has 29 votes up for grabs in 2012.
Sen. Marco Rubio: A Floridian and one of the Near Veeps, Rubio has the distinct privilege of placing Romney‚??s name into nomination. Rubio needs to shine without out-shining Romney. In his speech, the freshman senator needs to stoke and stroke topics the nominee wants to treat lightly: abortion, the role of religion in public life and most dangerously: immigration. Rubio‚??s immigration agenda is as close to President Barack Obama‚??s as one can get and still not be the president‚??s DREAM Act. If Rubio uses his slot to advance his generous approach to immigration he will hurt Romney with the rest of the party and the electorate. If he tells his very American story of aspiration, accomplishment and sense of purpose, he will be an inspiration to an audience far beyond mainstream Republicans.
Jeb Bush: Bush is more than the man who was the governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. He is the son of one president and the brother of another‚??and for many in the party the man of the three who actually should have been president. With his father‚??s illness and his brother‚??s self-imposed exile from public life, Bush represents the family who lived in the White House for 12 of the last 20 years.
Gov. Rick Scott: As the sitting governor, Scott must play the gracious host and booster. But, as one of the GOP‚??s most controversial governors, his selection shows Romney is not afraid to put forward Republicans in the party‚??s van. Given the spotlight, Scott should be sound and play it straight, since anything out of the mainstream will create static for the ticket and the party‚??s drive to win his state.
Other Florida speakers of note are Attorney General Pam Bondi, U.S. Senate hopeful Rep. Connie Mack, who is the husband of Sonny Bono‚??s widow, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.)
Women in (Political) Combat
In the late 1970s, the Republican Party began a shift away from supporting abortion rights and more access to contraceptives. Aside from the moral considerations, there was a calculation that there would be a net gain to the party, as socially conservative women outnumbered feminists. Regardless of the numbers, since then the party has been tagged with a ‚??gender gap‚?Ě defined as a lack of support from women. How better to beat the gender gap than to parade out strong female Republicans?
Condoleezza Rice: The former secretary of state has confessed to a moderately pro-abortion stance, which means she can never be on a national Republican ticket. But, it does mean she garners moderately pro-Rice press from the mainstream media and is popular with many GOP women who appreciate her intellect and independence. Look for a rousing speech with more domestic content than foreign policy.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte: New Hampshire‚??s junior senator was also a near veep and is a close friend and ally of Rubio‚??s. Her heartfelt conservatism should play well. The real question is how she will handle questions about the woman who is not likely to be there: Sarah Palin. Palin‚??s endorsement gave Ayotte the nomination over a better-known, better-financed opponent.
Gov. Nikki Haley: The governor of South Carolina was the victim of a smear campaign by operatives claiming to have had affairs with the Sikh-raised Methodist wife and mother of two. Despite the flimsiness of the charges, they linger in the air around her. A strong speech is a good step towards her creating a new narrative. Like Ayotte, Palin endorsed Haley in her primary and gave her the push she needed. Other women of note speaking are Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Rep. Paul Ryan: As the vice-presidential nominee, the Wisconsin congressman has the freedom to attack the Democrats without fear of offending Democrats. Because most VP nominees are chosen at the convention or shortly ahead, their speeches are not finely honed. Rather, they are little more than boilerplate applause lines strung together.
But, given the lead time Ryan‚??s staff was given, expect a well-structured and well-thought-out address. Expect Ryan to engage the attacks against him on the federal budget and his plan for reforming Medicare. One goal in crafting a ticket is balance, either politically or geographically. Ryan brings balance by standing his ground and parrying with his critics‚??unlike Romney, whose political stands are less fixed.
Mitt Romney: It was troubling in the midst of the GOP primaries to hear Romney supporters plead that Romney would work to do better in speeches and debates. It was troubling because the man has been running for president since at least halfway through his 2003 to 2007 term as the governor of Massachusetts. The question really is: Will he be ready for his close-up?
Yes. Romney will be ready and he will do a great job. If anything, Romney is a man who rises to the challenge. His message and writing teams are finally settled and synched to his personality and programs. When Romney makes the case Thursday night that Barack Obama is a nice guy, not up to the job, he will do so standing in the center of the greatest stage of campaign.