TAMPA — Nearly all the suspense — save, perhaps, just how much rain and wind will descend on Tampa during the 2012 Republican National Convention — has already seeped out of this minutely scripted quadrennial event. And yet there still remains an element of doubt on whether, during these upcoming four days, someone will spectacularly fall flat on his or her political rear end or, conversely, will wildly succeed in beating expectations.
Mitt Romney will undoubtedly attract the convention's single largest television audience when he delivers his major address on Thursday night as the no longer presumptive GOP nominee. But history reveals that the spotlight could also shine (or dim) on the convention keynote speaker as well as on whomever introduces the party's choice.
In different ways, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the current and penultimate Democratic presidents, illustrate these unpredictable factors in convention lore.
Obama's electrifying keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention spurred talk about a future run for the presidency, even though at the time, as an Illinois state senator, he had yet to ascend to the national political stage.
None of the four major TV networks carried Obama's speech. But the commentariat was enthralled. And that's what really mattered.
NBC's Tom Brokaw wondered whether Obama or the nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, would be the more remembered figure from the convention while Hendrik Hertzberg, a onetime speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, rated it as "slightly better" than the heralded 1984 keynote address by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. "If he wrote that speech, then he should be president, because it's such a great speech," Hertzberg said.
What Obama had found were two key advocates on Kerry's staff: convention manager Jack Corrigan and media guru Robert Shrum. Corrigan's friend, Lisa Hay, who knew Obama from their years on the Harvard Law Review, made a pitch on his behalf. Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry campaign manager, chose Obama over the other finalist, Canadian-born Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
As the keynote speaker in Tampa, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is already far better known among the political cognoscenti than Obama was in 2004. Romney gratefully received his endorsement last October, while his nomination was still far from being assured.
Clinton was a young up-and-coming governor of Arkansas in 1988 when Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts chose him to give the convention nominating speech. It went on for 33 minutes, twice the assigned length, while the convention delegates, paying scant attention, milled around the Omni in Atlanta, as if at some giant cocktail party, and the networks all cut away.
The most memorable highlight from that evening's calamity came when Clinton spoke the words "in closing," prompting a sardonic cheer from the delegates.
The best prospect to emerge as the "un-Clinton" in Tampa is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is scheduled to speak before Romney. Expectations are running high: In addition to his come-from-behind 2010 Senate victory, Rubio has earned a reputation as the anointed "crown prince" of the tea party movement.
To the dismay of some convention history buffs, what most assuredly will be lacking in Tampa, long the home of fine cigars, is any semblance of a "smoke-filled room" — a bygone staple of U.S. politics.
The late William Safire wrote in his authoritative political dictionary that the phrase originated at the 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago, which nominated Ohio Gov. Warren Harding on the 10th ballot.
According to Safire, Harry Daugherty, an Ohio Republican political operative, predicted the delegates would be deadlocked. Then, he reportedly said: "After the other candidates have gone their limit, some 12 or 15 men, worn out and bleary-eyed for lack of sleep, will sit down about two o'clock in the morning around a table in a smoke-filled room in some hotel and decide the nomination. When the time comes, Harding will be selected."
Daugherty, who went on to become Harding's scandal-tainted attorney general, "later denied having said any such thing," Safire wrote. But the account was subsequently corroborated by William Allen White, the iconic editor of the Emporia (Kan.) Gazette and a well-respected figure in Republican ranks.
As usually happens in such cases, the press had the last word. A story filed by Kirke Simpson of the Associated Press at 5 a.m. June 12, 1920, led off with the words: "Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today as (the) Republican candidate for president."