TAMPA, Fla. — Surrounded by giant-size family photos, Ann Romney offered a glowing testimonial to her husband. Jabbing an accusing finger, Chris Christie painted a grim portrait of America under Barack Obama.
Each in their own way attempted something important: To warm up a presidential nominee whom voters find distinctly chilly and persuade them to fire a president that many still find personally likeable.
A political convention is a lot of things: a campaign rally, a rubber stamp, a gathering of tribes. But above all, a political convention is a show — more specifically, a nationally broadcast television show.
Hurricane Isaac caused the GOP to cancel the first day of the convention and forced Mitt Romney’s strategists to scrupulously weigh each word, knowing that scenes from the arena would play alongside images of the natural disaster. But for Tuesday’s opening night, at least, the campaign stuck with a familiar script: heartfelt endorsement from loving family and friends, raw-knuckled attack on the opposing side and its standard-bearer.
The most important hour, the lone slice of prime time carried by the national broadcast networks, featured two of the Republican Party’s leading luminaries, Romney’s devoted wife and New Jersey’s pugnacious governor. One sweet, the other tart; she the velvet glove, he the clenched fist.
Ann Romney, who went first, spoke of love and family and struggle, swaddling her husband in the personal warmth that has proved so elusive in his two tries at the White House. And if she occasionally stumbled over her words, seeming a bit fazed by the use of a TelePrompter, her tribute was passionate and devoted and affectionately received inside the arena.
For those who think it was all mansions, fancy cars and expensive hobbies for the wealthy couple and their fortunate children, Romney offered scenes of simple domesticity and times of personal hardship.
“We got married and moved into a basement apartment. We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, and ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish,” she said. “Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days.”
Where Ann Romney radiated warmth, Christie put off heat.
He painted Democrats as cowardly and self-aggrandizing, too timid to face the problems facing the country and too consumed with their own political well-being to make the hard choices needed to set the country right. (Though the specifics of those choices were largely unsaid.)
“Here’s their plan,” Christie taunted. “Whistle a happy tune while driving us off the fiscal cliff, as long as they are behind the wheel of power when we fall.”
He mentioned Obama by name just once — “real leaders don’t follow polls. Real leaders change polls” — but there was no doubting his target or mistaking his assertion that under the current administration the country has drifted far from its ideals and squandered its inherent promise.
Of the two, Ann Romney had by far the easier assignment.
Speaking to an audience of thousands inside the hall and millions more on TV would be nervous-making for even the most accomplished public speaker.
But Romney, who has proved an empathetic and engaging campaigner, was tasked with the sort of home-and-hearth encomiums that could scarcely raise a fuss. It is why the spouse-as-character-witness has become a stock part of the modern national political convention.
Christie, whose blunt-spoken, chin-out assertiveness has become his trademark, had to offer a critique of the president that not only excited those inside the hall (the easy part) but seemed well-reasoned and convincing to the less partisan audience (the swing voters who will decide the election) watching at home.
The balance can be a tough one. Patrick J. Buchanan lit up the convention hall at the 1992 Republican convention with his thundering declaration of a “culture war,” but in the process, set a torch to President George H.W. Bush’s campaign.
Republicans were obviously thrilled with Christie’s performance. Democrats doubtless less so, though Christie maintained a tone that, while pointed, was never disrespectful. Independents and other persuadable voters will tell the pollsters in the next few days what they thought. (Some of the early reviews suggested Christie talked too much about himself and his New Jersey record and not enough about the GOP nominee.)
Ultimately, though, the burden of salesmanship rests on Romney himself.
Making the round of morning talk shows ahead of his speech, Christie said Ann Romney could humanize her husband and he could vouch for the candidate’s economic know-how. But it is Romney, Christie said, who will have “to let the American people see who he is.”
That comes Thursday night, the convention finale, when the former Massachusetts governor formally accepts his party’s nomination and, speaking to what should be the largest audience he has ever addressed, makes the case for why he deserves to be president and Obama needs to be replaced.
There is a long tradition in show business of saving the best for last.
Romney’s campaign is counting on it.
©2012 Los Angeles Times