As the Republicans gather in Tampa next week, we read of plans by the Romney handlers to give us yet another Mitt Romney. This will be different than the Romney who ran against Ted Kennedy, the Romney that was governor, the Romney who ran for president in 2008 and the Romney that just won in the GOP primaries. Romney’s hired hands, many of whom work in television rather than political campaigns, believe they can present Romney 5.0 in a way that will rehabilitate his image. There are several obstacles to that.
Those of us who have watched him run for office know that he switches positions as effortlessly as others change sheets on their beds. But the essential Romney persona never changes. He is awkward, defensive and stubborn (especially when he gets caught changing positions); he never tells a story about a poor person or minority and has utterly no sense of humor or irony.
The TV Networks
The conventions will be the most-watched single political events until the fall debates. However, the traditional major networks are only allocating one hour of primetime to carry the conventions live. The Romney designers feel clever backdrops and multiple video screens will stop channel surfing. They are wrong.
Fox News, CNN and MSNBC will provide extensive coverage and endless analysis, but people who watch those channels have already made up their minds. Four years ago, McCain’s acceptance address was seen by 38.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen, just slightly more than the 38.4 million who watched Obama’s speech. Sarah Palin had 37.2 million viewers. In the fall, twice as many people watched McCain and Palin in debates; a similar number saw Barach Obama and Joe Biden.
Among those who know Romney is a Mormon, one in five voters admit they are uncomfortable with his religion. The Romney convention producers intend to take this problem head on, in a way Romney himself has not in the current campaign. This is high risk at this stage. In a close race, discomfort with a candidate’s faith can tip the balance. Evangelical Christians are the most suspicious of Mormonism; however, they may go with Romney for other reasons.
Paul Ryan Will Be The Story
By waiting until last week to choose Ryan, Romney has not had time to introduce him to the nation, much less the delegates. Almost half the delegates didn’t vote for Romney in the primaries. They may like the ticket better because of Ryan’s hard-line conservatism and budget proposals. But they are fairly sophisticated about campaigns and may well realize that Ryan has some very risky stands, especially on Medicare and contraception. Delegates will be justly concerned about his co-sponsoring a bill with the radioactive Todd Akin of Missouri that would have designated “personhood” on an embryo from the moment of fertilization.
The Other Players
Palin says she’s not attending the convention. Ditto for George W. Bush. But what about Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain? These moths drawn to the TV lights may not be at the podium but they will be stalking the convention halls, restaurants and receptions eager to connect with the press. They will find cable networks eager for filler. Besides, who’s going to tell Newt he can’t talk on TV about having called Ryan’s budget “right-wing social engineering?”
The X Factor
Something unexpected always happens at a big event like this. Republicans tend to be far more buttoned up and they don’t brook any deviation from the script. Still, demonstrators may show up in Tampa, (Occupiers, perhaps?) although both parties have learned to put them in holding pens far away from reporters and cameras.
As Gilda Radnor, playing Roseanne Roseannadanna on “Saturday Night Live,” used to say, “It’s always somethin’.” George Bush the elder announced at the 1988 convention, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” That came back to cost him the presidency four years later. That same summer, Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis told delegates, “This election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence.”
This will be the first convention where social media will be available in full force. The omnipresence of smart phones, laptops, and electronic tablets mean opinions of delegates and office holders will be instantaneously available. It’s tough to censor a Twitter feed or a cellphone video. It’s not clear if the Romney forces will ask people not to communicate directly with the news media. Regardless, it’s unenforceable unless you’re the Chinese government. Even trying to stop them could turn the GOP convention into an uprising that Democrats might call the Republican Summer.
Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.