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Who will be speaking when at the Tampa RNC? We make some predictions

TAMPA — This is unwelcome news for Mitt Romney: Florida Gov. Rick Scott expects a high-profile speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.

"I would hope so," he told a newspaper editorial board this week when asked if he anticipates giving a prime-time speech in Tampa.

Nothing says "Elect Mitt Romney!" like an unpopular multimillionaire awkwardly making the case on national TV.

We're 100 days out, and convention organizers are just starting to tackle one of the trickiest and most important elements of the convention — selecting the speakers.

It's a matter of juggling monumental political egos, precious little time for maximum TV exposure, appeasing people whose help is needed, and ensuring the best message comes through to win over swing voters just starting to focus on the presidential contest.

"How much lobbying is there? More lobbying than on an oil pipeline,'' said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who played a key role in putting together John Kerry's 2004 convention in Boston.

Republican strategist Russ Schriefer, program chair for George W. Bush's 2004 convention in New York and now a senior Romney adviser, recounted more subtle lobbying efforts.

"People would give you suggestions — 'It would be a really good idea for X to speak,' " he recalled with a chuckle. "Without naming names, there were a few challenges, and there are always a few egos that need to be soothed."

The job is daunting. The networks at best will devote five or six hours over four days to convention coverage, and a good chunk of that is taken by all-but required speeches — the nominee, his spouse, the vice presidential nominee — so planners have to make the very most of the limited time they have.

The flexibility is further limited when you factor in other desired messages, such as highlighting the GOP's diversity even if the audience inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum is overwhelmingly white. In 2008, for instance, the second night of the convention featured some of the party's most prominent minorities, including Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Education Secretary Rod Paige and Jeb Bush's son, George P. Bush.

"They have special needs. For example they've got to reach out to Hispanics so you'll see Marco Rubio and maybe (New Mexico Gov.) Susana Martinez in prime time," Shrum said. "They'll have to have women, because they need to close the gender gap."

So you'll likely see Rubio — whether or not he's on the ticket — because the convention is in his home state and because of his ability to captivate a crowd. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seems a good bet, as does Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. But where does, say, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal fit in, or Virginia's Bob McDonnell?

Is there room in prime time for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty? Or even more intriguing are the prospects of Sarah Palin and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

What about former President George W. Bush? Many Republicans doubt he'll seek a speaking slot.

That's not even counting the GOP presidential candidates who hung on the longest — Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

Highly choreographed

Conventions are highly choreographed productions on which every nominee puts his imprint. Generally the message is aimed for mainstream, swing voters, and the theme for 2012 in Tampa seems predictable: Barack Obama is a failed president, and Romney has what it takes to turn the country around.

Even if conventions amount to a four-day campaign commercial, don't underestimate their importance. They can determine whether or not a candidate heads into the final stretch with momentum.

"Conventions matter a whole lot. The messaging that comes out of it, the focus every day and every night, the amount of press and communication . . . that comes out of the convention is an enormous push to our candidate," said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. "It could go really, really well, or it couldn't go well and that would be very bad."

Not going well can take various forms, the most extreme modern example being riots during the 1968 Democratic convention. More recently, Pat Buchanan's so-called "culture war speech" at the 1992 Republican convention was widely seen as a disaster, depicting the GOP as intolerant and extremist.

For all the meticulous planning, down to every last image and sound, something can go wrong.

In 2008, a threatening Hurricane Gustav in the Gulf of Mexico wiped out the first full day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. The wash-out sent convention programmers scrambling to fit four days of speakers and programming into 21/2.

Tough choices had to be made.

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster and program director for the 2008 convention, remembers telling Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison that she wasn't getting the speaking slot she had been promised.

"I was afraid I wouldn't walk out of there with my scalp," Goeas remembers. He did; Hutchison was gracious. So was Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, who had his speech scrapped.

To settle a question over who would speak first, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman or former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Goeas flipped a coin.

Another bit of intrigue from that 2008 convention: John McCain's conservative rival, Mike Huckabee, had coveted a prime-time slot on the convention's second night to blast away at then-Democratic nominee Obama. But Goeas and convention programmers preferred a young, little-known governor from a faraway state — Palin. That all changed, of course, when Palin was named McCain's vice presidential nominee.

Romney's choice

The Romney team faces its own tough calculations. Is Santorum, with his focus on social conservatism, a speaker likely to win over independent voters? Would a Gingrich or Palin prime-time address help narrow the Democrats' advantage with women? Will there be backlash from the base if none of them gets a prime-time speech?

"There are debts that have to be paid off and there are troops that have to be mobilized. You can't just exclude people and ignore people and risk insulting them. He needs the party faithful to be faithful,'' said political scientist Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center.

"It's a delicate balancing act. He has some leverage, though," Cain said. "You have people who want to be in the Cabinet or have some influence for whatever reason. It's not as if Romney and the party establishment don't have cards to play."

The biggest question mark? Paul, whose positions on foreign policy and some social issues put him at odds with the Republican establishment. Goeas says Romney's leverage over Paul might not be a Cabinet post or a future run for office (Paul is 76) but maybe the political future of Paul's son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Paul, Goeas says, "has shown a certain interest in not doing any harm to his son."

Schriefer also noted the prime-time speaking slots are not necessarily as important today as they were in the past. Cable networks cover the conventions so thoroughly that millions of viewers will still see speeches even if they aren't televised on the broadcast networks in prime time.

The Romney campaign has not named a program director for the convention, but the RNC's committee on arrangements overseeing the event has several convention veterans already in place to piece together the campaign's political and production needs. That includes Larry Harlow, a federal lobbyist, serving as director of official proceedings.

He will work closely with the Romney campaign on scheduling, though a big part of Harlow's job is making sure the official business gets completed amid the pomp and ceremony. It's often overlooked that conventions are official party meetings where tasks — from ratifying rules and procedures, electing officers, adopting a platform, and, of course, voting on the nominee — must be completed.

Don't expect speaker announcements any time soon. They usually get finalized at the last minute, convention veterans say, partly because events could overtake earlier considerations. If a foreign policy crisis erupts in August, for instance, fixing the economy may not the all-consuming theme in Tampa.

And Gov. Scott's prospects for prime time? Unlikely. At best, he can expect an early-bird speech, say 6:15 p.m. That's when the networks are focused elsewhere and even the delegates inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum are ignoring the speeches.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@tampabay.com.

Who will be speaking when at the Tampa RNC? We make some predictions 05/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 11:41am]

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