Politico

Party conventions don't always stay on script

Conventions might no longer really choose their party's nominee, but they will always bring surprises.

The quadrennial affairs are more scripted with each passing cycle but some things cannot be controlled even by the most disciplined party apparatchiks.

The hordes of reporters who flood these gatherings hate feeling like spoon-fed stenographers. So anything remotely off-message automatically gets oodles of coverage. The result is that small moments become big to-dos.

Here are a few examples of some of the totally predictable yet spontaneous moments we could see in Tampa:

VP SURPRISE

In 2008, the big news during the Republican convention in St. Paul was that Sarah Palin's daughter was pregnant. John McCain's newly minted running mate announced that Levi Johnston, the baby's father, would marry her daughter Bristol, right. It was one in a series of revelations about Palin and her unorthodox background that overshadowed everything else.

New information always comes out about just-picked vice presidential candidates, as their records are scrutinized and they are introduced to voters who are unfamiliar with them. The best example is Thomas Eagleton, a Missouri senator picked by Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972 who had to be dropped from the ticket after it was revealed he received shock therapy treatment for mental illness.

Oppo dumps?

Each party has an incentive to try and stomp on whatever momentum the other is trying to get out of its nominee's coronation. For instance, on the third day of the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it emerged that the Star, a tabloid, was going to publish a story accusing Bill Clinton's chief campaign strategist, Dick Morris, right, of carrying on a long-term relationship with a prostitute. Morris admitted the allegations, which included letting the prostitute listen in on phone calls with the president, and promptly left the campaign.

Hecklers inside

No matter how tight security is — and it will be as tight as ever — people who are not invited always get in. Attractive ladies finagle extra guest credentials from less-good-looking men at bars who want to impress them. Then the activists pass them off to their brethren. The goal is to disrupt proceedings and draw attention to causes. For the past two GOP conventions, that was opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The X-factor is how the speakers respond. George W. Bush always ignored them. Standard protocol at Republican events calls for the crowd to drown out hecklers with chants of "U-S-A."

At his acceptance speech in 2008, McCain, above, shot back after multiple interruptions.

"My dear friends, please, please don't be diverted by the ground noise and the static," the Arizona senator said to laughs, cheers and applause. "Americans want us to stop yelling at each other. Okay?"

The cutaway shot

Network producers are always looking to cut away from the staged action at the podium to get compelling visuals from the crowd. During the 2004 Democratic gathering in Boston, a camera panned away to show then-New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton sipping Champagne with her daughter Chelsea. It was an unguarded moment seen on national TV, and comedian Jon Stewart had a field day with it on his show. Other times the camera goes to the vanquished, and there could be buzz if the losers don't look appropriately gracious.

gone wild

Democrats tend to get more of the A-listers, but Republicans have actors like Kelsey Grammer and singers like Pat Boone who have the ability to draw attention and make news. Sammy Davis Jr. famously embraced Richard Nixon at the 1972 convention, for example. Boxing promoter Don King, right, got lots of attention as he roamed the floor of the Republican convention in 2004, sounding off to a phalanx of reporters and photographers who followed him.

Donald Trump will seemingly find a way into stories about this year's convention, even if he does not have a speaking slot on stage. He's set to accept a "Statesman of the Year" award from the Sarasota Republican Party on the eve of the convention.

Off-message delegates

Some rank-and-file delegates at the convention will happily talk with reporters — and go wildly off message.

"Limited network TV coverage and tight control of convention speeches limit the risk of unscripted moments from the podium," said John J. Pitney Jr., a Claremont McKenna College political scientist. "But in the age of YouTube and social media, there are going to be countless opportunities for mischief on the floor and around the hall.

"Take thousands of talkative politicians and giddy amateurs, add lots of journalists and bloggers desperate for some actual news, and, presto — you've got a recipe for 'macaca' moments."

POLITICO and the Tampa Bay Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.

Party conventions don't always stay on script 08/03/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 3, 2012 7:00am]

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