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Sep 01 2012

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Reflections on Tampa

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Heading into the Final Act

 The Republican National Convention was a success. Not a raging or even an unqualified success, mind you. But Team Romney took care of the essentials on gender, Romney and Bain, and the Obama record.

The GOP went to extraordinary lengths to prove that it’s not the “He-man Woman Haters Club” as Democrats seek to portray. The parade of accomplished women who stepped forward to rebut an incendiary and baseless charge almost reached the tipping point of parody – almost.

In the process, Republicans themselves must have been nearly as surprised as Democrats to see the depth and diversity of the GOP’s female bench. Senator Kelly Ayotte, Governors Susan Martinez, Nikki Haley and of course, Condi. Utah congressional candidate Mia Love did more with four paltry minutes that some prime time speakers could do with 30. It speaks to a promising future.

The GOP also put in lots of effort to rebut another baseless charge – that Mitt Romney isn’t human.

Ann Romney’s speech set the foundation for this humanization, but it was the personal testimonials of ordinary people, beneficiaries of Romney’s unpublicized caring and generosity, aired on the final night of the convention, that melted the hearts of even the most cynical political insider. By the time Romney took the stage himself on Thursday, there was no doubting that he is a good, honest and generous man. A devoted husband and father; a”community organizer” in the manner that most Americans understood the term before Barack Obama.

The GOP also tried mightily to put the “Bane of Bain” to bed with a spirited and multi-faceted defense of personal accomplishment. Romney started with nothing, took risks and made money. In the process, he created hundreds of jobs by investing in and creating good companies. Why should success be a character defect anyway? And given the scale of economic problems today, wouldn’t it be great to have a president who actually understood the economy?

Well asked questions. Well supported answers.

But nothing goes entirely on script. Live events are, after all, live. It is unfortunate that at least technically, those trip ups all came on the final night, when Romney was to speak.

The start was promising. The video documentary on Romney was outstanding. In a more perfect world, the video itself would have introduced the candidate, as Bush 41 used a family homage to introduce him in 1988.

But after the video came the Clint Eastwood interregnum. What was billed as a surprise delight was an unscripted disaster. It was rambling, cringe-inducing and disrespectful. In tone, it was completely out of place in a kinder and gentler convention where President Obama suffered only glancing blows. And it gobbled time to no useful purpose, pushing Romney’s own speech 15 minutes out of prime time.

Note to convention, in 2016, call Kelsey Grammer.

Then there was Senator Marco Rubio. His speech confirmed that he has star power and a seat at the elite table in the Republican Party. His obvious comfort at speaking to a national audience was matched by the ease with which he intertwined his own compelling personal story with the story of America. His connection with his audience – in the auditorium and at home – evokes Reagan.

The problem was that this wasn’t supposed to be a speech about Rubio. The official who introduces the nominee is supposed to talk mainly about the nominee. The criticism that fell on Chris Cristie on the first night of the convention, for his focus on New Jersey, would have been more appropriately targeted at Rubio.

It doesn’t help that the Romney high command would have reviewed and approved of both scripts, which left them with an obvious blind eye on how the presentations would reflect on the nominee.

And Rubio went on. This was probably because of the Eastwood debacle, but Rubio was suddenly cutting into Romney’s prime time. So, just when you thought that Rubio wouldn’t stop talking, the camera’s panned to the door as Romney began his walk down the center aisle. Rubio rushed to get to the intro as Romney started shaking hands.

This “man of the people” ploy didn’t work on a number of levels. First, Romney is as comfortable on a rope line as most people are in a dentists’ office. And it shows. Second, the very act of shaking so many hands left the cameras scrambling to find something to cover, and with no audio, the audience was left to hear the interchanges between Romney and the delegates. And all these sidebars actually delayed Romney getting to the stage, further straining his ability to get his speech in prime-time.

The “Long Walk” had two defects. First it was unpresidential. Normally that walk from behind the curtain onto the stage is the first view Americans get of a candidate and it shapes their bias as to whether the candidate “looks” presidential. A convention stage is an ideal place for that introduction, and Romney is virtually from central casting when you’re looking for someone who looks like a president. Had the campaign gone for traditional, it would have been a home run.

But the walk also had the defect of seeming presumptuously presidential. Whatever was intended – “man of the people talking to ordinary strangers” – it looked like a President walking into a State of the Union, greeting congressmen and Senators on the way down. In the larger history of campaigns, this wasn’t as silly as all those Obama campaign emblems that tried desperately to mimic the presidential seal before it was rightful theirs, but the walk still wasn’t helpful.

As for the speech, as Peggy Noonan said, “it achieved adequacy.” Oratory is not Romney’s strong suit, as everyone knows, and he was blessed that the speech was not cast as a “make or break” moment for the candidate and the campaign.

It was a safe speech, even defensive in some respects. The address underscored the main elements of the convention, which in turn seemed determined to rebut Obama campaign claims thus far. Romney confirmed the he is indeed, three dimensional and didn’t need Oz to have a heart. He showed us that he is not a misogynist. When it came time to criticize President Obama he cleverly did so with more sorrow than anger, a very effective tactic.

But for a campaign that keeps insisting on a real debate on the big issues, Romney ducked his chance to do so in his acceptance speech. Indeed, the five point plan that he mentioned was remarkable for its paucity of detail or relationship to larger economic principles.

Maybe it was enough. Obama is under 50 percent. The economy is on the skids, it’s the most important issue for voters and Romney leads Obama on economic issues in most surveys. Saying less in the speech certainly deprived the Democrats of anything they can use against Romney in Charlotte. But the lack of a robust defense of his very real and credible plan provides an opening to Democrats next week.

You see, Republicans used Tampa to fix the damage caused by four months of Obama attack ads. They pointed out Obama failures and said, in general terms, that the GOP could do better with its historic commitment to less government, regulation and taxation, and with greater reliance on the free market. But they didn’t define the actual policies well and they didn’t do a cause/effect.

As Team Obama reads all the dismal data in the polls, there is one pearl to be found amid the shells. A majority of Americans continue to believe that the current economic situation is the fault of George W. Bush. By 52-34 percent, they blame 43 over 44, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This provides an opportunity pivot for POTUS.

In Charlotte, the Democrats don’t have any character repair to do. The President is well liked generally and better liked than Romney. Instead, Democrats can go wonky, making the detailed case that with regard to spending, taxes and regulation, Romney-Ryan are proposing little more than Bush-Cheney warmed over. Since a majority of Americans believe Bush is responsible for today economic malaise, then it becomes axiomatic that Romney is proposing the same policies that got us into this mess to begin with.

It is utter balderdash of course, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work if Axelrod et.al, serve it up correctly. We’ll have to see. But there is no doubt Romney-Ryan missed the chance to prebutt this in Tampa in front of a national audience. Whether it was the smart play will only be known in the coming weeks.

 The good news for the GOP right now is that the Party is unified and the grass roots are engaged. Social conservatives and fiscal conservatives are again on speaking terms with the common goal of making Obama a one term president. The GOP has more intensity and more money for the final stretch. Few could have envisioned or even hoped for this during the antics that constituted the GOP primaries in February-March.

This is a welcome relief.

So, now onto Charlotte, and then into the final act.

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