Strategy And Speechifying At The GOP Convention

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, left, and convention CEO William Harris unveil the stage and podium for the 2012 Republican National Convention last week. (AP/Scott Iskowitz)
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, left, and convention CEO William Harris unveil the stage and podium for the 2012 Republican National Convention last week. (AP/Scott Iskowitz)

There has been a lot of speculation about how Mitt Romney’s campaign will use the GOP convention to “reintroduce” a candidate who’s been running for president for eight years.

Staging a convention is never simple and easy. Any time thousands of citizen activists are involved, things can go awry… especially when thousands of reporters are on high-alert for gaffes, extremism and funny hats.

Romneyites tend to be control freaks when stage-managing any events featuring the candidate, but some things are beyond their control.

Here are some of the questions this convention will answer:

Will Chris Christie, The Keynote Speaker, Set The Right Tone?

Most delegates will be happy if the New Jersey governor is prosecutorial about President Obama — making the case that his administration has been extreme, incompetent and corrupt (while noting he’s a good family man, of course). Christie became a folk hero to conservatives nationally for being combative with liberals in the audience, particularly supporters of public employee unions. But how will he do without a foil? He has shown a “nice guy” side, as well, in media interviews. He wouldn’t have won in New Jersey if he didn’t know how to appeal to moderates, independents and disillusioned Democrats. But will he rise to the occasion by being not only anti-Obama, but eloquently pro-Romney?

Will Ann Romney Impress Young, Single Women?

Romney doesn’t have a “gender gap” with married women; it’s with young, single women where he lags behind. This idea that Ann must “humanize” her awkward, stiff, businessman spouse seems unfair. How many spouses have to live with such a responsibility? “Uh, dear, could you pick up some milk on the way home? And I’m having a few colleagues from work drop by – would you mind humanizing me during the cocktail hour? Perhaps an anecdote about my shopping at Costco?”

Will Marco Rubio Open The Minds Of Some Hispanic Voters?

If there’s a “gender gap” we should call Obama’s lead over Romney with Hispanics an ethnic chasm. Despite Romney’s grandparents having lived in Mexico, apparently he isn’t viewed as Hispanic. In retrospect, maybe he regrets being “severely conservative” on immigration during the primaries. Rubio, a popular Florida senator, is Cuban-American.

Republicans tend to do well with Cuban-American voters because of their strong anti-Castro views, but what does Rubio have to say in promoting Romney to other Hispanic voters? The expectation is that he’ll push the Romney message that all groups will benefit from rejuvenating the economy… and that young Hispanics and African-Americans have been hit the hardest in the last four years. Will he be so inspiring – like Obama in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention — he’ll become the GOP frontrunner for president in 2016 if Romney fails to win this time?

Will Paul Ryan Upstage Romney?

If Ryan delivers a more powerful speech than Romney it might not be evident in the reaction of delegates since most are Romneyites. Both should get plenty of applause in the hall. But will Ryan be far more compelling to the conservative faithful watching at home, and conservatives in the media? As in the case of Marco Rubio, if Romney loses in November many Republicans will support Ryan for president in 2016. Enthusiasm for Ryan doesn’t mean lack of enthusiasm for Romney; indeed, Romney’s choice of Ryan convinced many skeptical conservatives that Romney is worth fighting for.

What Will The TV Ratings Be For The Romney Speech?

The GOP nominee is not known for delivering an electrifying speech. Indeed, even some supporters find his overly earnest speaking style a little painful to the eyes and ears. So how many will tune in for his acceptance speech?

Will There Be A Convention 'Bounce'?

This presidential race has been unusually protracted, with vast sums spent early on advertising… and the electorate has been polarized all along. So, there are fewer undecided voters. How can Romney get a big bounce in the polls when he’s already so well known, and when so few voters are receptive?

Will Romney Be Presidential, Polarizing Or Personable?

In writing the Romney acceptance speech, his advisers had to feel conflicted. Should he be positive and presidential, sounding like a visionary problem-solver? Or should he stress the case against Obama so the election is a referendum on failed economic policies? Or should Romney try to improve his likability since voters usually choose the candidate they’d rather have a beer with… or at least watch on TV? The temptation for strategists and speechwriters in this case – having plenty of time, a rehearsed candidate with a Teleprompter, and an audience that will clap and cheer at anything that sounds like a soundbite – is to try to achieve all three things. A great speech, delivered by a great orator, could accomplish all of that. And people who already support Romney might feel he succeeds as long as he doesn’t make a gaffe. The problem, though, is that if he tries to be three different personas it won’t play well in news coverage and conversation.

Most voters will not be watching the speech, but they will catch snippets of it in broadcast news, talk shows, entertainment shows or online. It’s hard to imagine that people would conclude that Romney was truly all three things – presidential, yet polarizing – polarizing yet personable. For his speech, I believe he should be “presidential” and “the problem-solver.” Trying to be likable can seem contrived, and thus backfire. Trying to be polarizing and prosecutorial, well, it’s hard to believe that is what undecided voters have waited to hear. If they haven’t heard enough bitter rhetoric already, they haven’t been paying attention and probably won’t end up voting anyway.

This program aired on August 27, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Todd Domke Twitter Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.