TAMPA — Mitt Romney on Tuesday officially became the leader of the Republican Party. What's unclear is how much it's really his Republican Party.
Talk to delegates in and around the Tampa Bay Times Forum, and they're more likely to gush about Chris Christie or Marco Rubio than their nominee. Ask them to explain Romney's agenda and ideology and they point enthusiastically to running mate Paul Ryan's.
"The party's not defined by the top of the ticket anymore. The party is defined by the broader community of people who choose to associate and participate,'' said Matt Kibbe, chairman of FreedomWorks, the grass roots organizing group aligned with tea party conservatives. "It's not so much about Mitt Romney, it's just a different world."
Romney is well positioned to win the White House in 69 days, and all signs point to a party united and energized to beat President Barack Obama.
Still, he looks less like the party standard-bearer than any nominee in decades.
It's a reflection of lingering uncertainty about the candidate, the growing strength of conservative grass roots activism and the changing nature of politics in the social media era.
Not the Big Idea
Republicans have tended to be most enthusiastic about ideologically bold nominees who spell out what the party stands for. This year, the party essentially dictated that to Romney.
Rather than pick a Big Idea nominee, they nominated a technician who laid out his agenda by picking a Big Idea running mate.
"He picked Paul Ryan because he wanted to excite the party's base. Ronald Reagan would never have had to pick a running mate like that,'' said ABC's Sam Donaldson, who has been covering presidential politics since the 1968 conventions. "It's because Romney has such a weak hold on his party and because people are unsure who he really is."
"Romney's blessed that he's got Scott Walker, he's got Bobby Jindal, and others whose ideas he can absorb," said Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist. "The question is whether he is smart enough to absorb others' ideas, the way Ronald Reagan did with Jack Kemp."
But voters knew what Reagan stood for at this point in 1980. They knew what George W. Bush stood for in 2000.
"What is Romneyism? It's fix it,'' said Ari Fleischer, former senior adviser to Bush. "He's not flashy, he's not an ideologue, but he is what the country is calling for at this time."
There is also a palpable hunger for the next generation of bold Republican leaders to take the party's reins. Republicans have a deep bench of future presidential prospects.
"Mitt Romney is a bridge from an older generation of Republicans to a younger generation, which includes Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, folks that are in their 40s or 50s and presumably will be representing the party for another 30 years," noted Republican strategist Sara Fagen, former political director in the Bush White House.
Social media matters
Another factor: Romney takes the helm of the party at a time when leadership is much more diffuse.
One billionaire today can use an independent super PAC to keep a campaign like Newt Gingrich's alive, even as most party leaders denounce him. On any given day it may seem Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge or an influential blogger is the voice of the GOP.
In the age of Twitter, the grass roots is much more informed and engaged. And social media has made it more difficult for party leaders to get members to fall in line.
With 11,000 Facebook friends and 5,000 Twitter followers, Texas state Sen. Dan Patrick is no critic of the ease in which social media can be used to communicate and organize. He said the new media has helped engage the public in a way that was unthinkable 10 years ago.
"The public now sits in legislative meetings; they know bill numbers," Patrick said. "It used to be that the Republicans and Democrats were the only game in town, the only ones who had the money to organize. But now the grass roots can match that with social media."
That engagement has a nasty downside for establishment candidates, Patrick said. Discipline is harder when candidates like Ron Paul can organize a sophisticated insurgency.
"It's not a knock on Romney," Patrick said. "Reagan didn't have this problem. There was no Facebook. He had three networks, no talk radio, no FOX News. The landscape has changed."
As if anyone needed a reminder that the GOP establishment no longer can fully control the agenda, delegates on Tuesday fumed and booed House Speaker John Boehner on the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum after he declared the passage of controversial party rules.
'A bit of discipline'
To Joe Scarborough, the Republican former Florida congressman and MSNBC host, Romney truly became the leader of the Republican Party last week amid the uproar of Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin of Missouri. He credits the Romney campaign with helping the GOP stand nearly united in calling for Akin to drop out of the race after his comments about "legitimate rape," and said it showed overdue leadership.
Scarborough said he and many other veterans of Republican politics had been "really disappointed that Mitt Romney and others would allow Glenn Beck to call Obama a racist who hated all white people, who would allow all these other ad hominem attacks against the president and not … basically not lead the party. Not show discipline."
"For the first time since Barack Obama became president, the party showed a little bit of discipline, to call out a wingnut in the party," he said. "I'm guessing that was probably Romney and his organization."
It may say just as much about the strength of Romney and his party leadership that Akin has not yet dropped out.
Romney has at least an even chance of winning the presidency with the help of an energetic and enthusiastic Republican Party. But he will lead a party that increasingly gives marching orders, instead of taking them.
"Whatever else happens, you can predict that Romney will be the last presidential candidate in the Republican Party chosen from the top down," said Kibbe of FreedomWorks. "That's because the party's been completely repopulated with people who emerged from the grass roots process."
Times staff writers Eric Deggans, Michael Van Sickler, Katie Sanders and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report, as did Charles Mahtesian of POLITICO. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]