Monday, December 11, 2017

Six takeaways from Republican National Convention

TAMPA — The soggy, delayed party is over.

Mitt Romney is now officially the Republican nominee for president, and Paul Ryan is formally his running mate. Republicans seemed excited to beat President Barack Obama but still adjusting to their new standard-bearer after three days of a convention shortened by Hurricane Isaac. Their love for Ryan was the most electric part of the convention.

Here are POLITICO's six takeaways after the Republican National Convention:

1. Romney opened up.

In a speech that was heavier than normal on biography, the candidate accepted his nomination by talking about the "disappointment" of President Barack Obama's tenure, the desperate need for a corrective action this election, and the promises the president made that weren't met.

He talked about his tenure at Bain Capital, and the jobs he created. Facing a large gender gap with female voters, Romney talked about his mom's Senate candidacy.

But the speech was, in many ways, an expanded version of Romney's stump address. He has tended toward the "in sorrow, not anger" approach for much of the cycle, and went there again Thursday night. He also stuck with his general slogan of "Believe in America."

The disappointment theme has been threaded throughout Romney's approach this cycle, and it's very real for many voters, as polls have shown.

It's a safe bet that the Romney speech will be graded by most commentators against Ryan's, which was written by a group of professional speechwriters instead of the candidate, as Romney insisted his was. Romney is not a naturally gifted speaker and selling himself has remained a struggle.

There is a consensus that Romney needed a home run out of his speech — the commentary in the next few days will determine whether he was able to press reset on what has been a fairly miserable July and August for him.

2. The sum of the parts is not yet clear.

Romney has had more than his share of bad luck — a mess in the Missouri Senate race, a hurricane that delayed the start of the Republican National Convention. The truncated Tampa event never totally gelled until Ryan's speech and the final night, partially because of the weather and a rejiggered speaking order.

But even before that, there was also no core message or cohesive vision that emerged from the 2012 convention, beyond the staggered nightly themes. One of them was based on Obama's now-famous gaffe, "You didn't build that."

Most of the speeches by governors were about themselves or their states, not about Romney. The speeches had conflicting messages — Ann Romney talked about the importance of love, while right afterward, Chris Christie's keynote said it's better to be respected than loved.

The GOP was, until last night, on loan to Romney, and he is still not "of" it. How the three convention nights add up after the fact — and whether Romney gets any bounce, especially after the weather and with the Democratic National Convention starting nearly instantly — remains to be seen.

3. 2016 remains wide open.

Sure, Ryan will be seen as having a clear edge four years from now if Romney loses, if he avoids any damage to a brand that's been bolstered by a number of conservative writers. But Ryan's speech, while strong, is not going to enter the pantheon of enduring, memorable convention addresses.

None of the speeches given by the 2016 prospects has been either a barn burner or something particularly grand.

Scott Walker stood out the most from the crop of governors, and Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez were fine. But for whatever reason — the set design, the endless milling about of the delegates, the disjointedness of a convention delayed by weather — the speeches have seemed small, instead of big.

If Romney loses, this convention is the first audition of the 2016 Republican candidates, but no one secured much of an advantage for when the gates open after this cycle.

4. The minority gap will persist.

Ann Romney gave a speech that was well-received, and that softened her husband's image. Condoleezza Rice brought the house down with her personal story of growing up in the segregated South. Ted Cruz was the face of the younger generation of Hispanic conservatives.

For all of the speeches, the convention doesn't seem to have done much to address the demographic challenges facing Romney with key groups of voters — Hispanics, women and, to a much lesser extent, African-Americans. He will never win black voters against Obama, but he does need as much support as he can from them, especially in urban areas in swing states like Ohio.

Giving Cuban-American Marco Rubio the chance to introduce Romney was a smart choice in terms of appealing to Latino voters. And there were a number of high-profile Hispanic leaders present. But there was little done to move the needle for Romney with voters he badly needs if he's to win.

5. Fiscal conservatism is the new conservatism.

For a few days ahead of the convention, it seemed like Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin was actually on the presidential ticket, given the focus Democrats gave his controversial remarks on pregnancy and rape.

Yet the staunch social conservatism that Akin represents was barely present for three days in Tampa.

Much was made about the language in the convention platform against abortion rights, as well as anti-gay marriage. But those topics were almost never mentioned in the evening speeches this week.

Even Rick Santorum, the 1990s-era culture warrior, didn't linger for long on social issues, referring to values and the importance of the culture of life, but fleetingly.

This was a far road from 20 years ago, when Pat Buchanan condemned Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton as social liberals defending a gay agenda. This week's focus was the economy and budgetary priorities.

The eat-your-veggies message — referring to tightening the government-spending belt — was present throughout the event. And the message is reflected in the party's crop of future leaders — Ryan, Walker, Christie, Rubio.

"New Democrats have, for the first time, a counterpart: in Tampa in 2012, the New Republican was born," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.

It is, Castellanos added, "The organic Republican, the Republican who believes in growing an economy bottom-up, naturally and organically from the American people, not top-down, political and artificially, from Washington."

6. Chris Christie needs to take stock.

The New Jersey governor, faced with a string of scathing comments about his keynote speech as overly self-promoting, had two choices for how to handle it — he could have shrugged it off and been stoic, or he could have pushed back, loudly.

He chose the latter. Christie spent much of Wednesday making clear at a variety of events how much the negative headlines bothered him — a gathering hosted by hedge-fund executive Paul Singer, a Republican Governors Association luncheon, and in conversations with a number of people.

Instead of barreling ahead and focusing solely on November, he, albeit inadvertently, turned most interactions into a feedback machine about his own performance.

The criticism was by no means universal — a number of people praised it. But for critics, the speech's flaw — which was largely a "State of the State" address about his New Jersey tenure as a model for the nation — was that it was a fine one for Christie but not so good for Romney. The New York Post front page on Monday saying Christie hadn't wanted to be the VP pick because he thinks Romney will lose didn't do him any favors.

Neither did Christie's promotion of his own speech. Instead of telegraphing to the morning TV shows that he wasn't going to go all Jersey Shore, he tried to stoke the suspense. But the caricature version is what people find appealing about him, so it was natural they were left wanting more when he went post-partisan, adopting some of the Scott Walker/Paul Ryan approach on making tough choices.

The coverage of Christie's speech in New Jersey was largely positive, and that's where he should now focus. Instead of concentrating on the national scene, he should tend to his 2013 re-election fight. If Christie wants to remain a figure on the national stage, he needs to win his next race — home-state voters can get frustrated if a leader seems to be looking down the road to the next thing — and examine the last few days not as a lasting problem, but as an object lesson.

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