New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie walks onto the stage at the Republican National… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
TAMPA, Fla. – Party activists come to a convention for many reasons – networking, fund-raising, morale boosting – but for a handful of Republicans who envision themselves as a potential future nominee, this week represents an audition.
Conventions may not generate much actual news anymore, but they remain a crucial proving ground for new talent. Most notably in recent years, Barack Obama likely would never have run for president but for a tremendously successful keynote speech at the Democratic convention in 2004.
This time around, party favorites, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, current governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have made the rounds of breakfast and receptions with delegations from key states. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose quest for the 2012 nomination flamed out dramatically during the fall’s debates, has no speaking role at the convention, but has been visible on the floor, circulating among delegates.
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“Oh, absolutely. There’s a long time until 2016 and a lot of good things can happen," Perry said Tuesday night in response to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd about whether he would consider running again.
Most other hopefuls try to avoid a formulation that blunt, particularly since talk of 2016 inevitably assumes that Mitt Romney won’t be around as an incumbent four years from now. But even when the approach is more subtle, the “Hey, look at me” vibe is clear, particularly in convention speeches.
Tuesday night, the biggest applause from delegates – other than the ovations for Ann Romney – went to Walker and Christie, who presented sharply contrasting looks at how to pitch the conservative message to voters. Christie’s prime-time convention keynote speech was New Jersey blunt, while Walker, whose appearances drew two ovations from delegates, was Midwestern polite.
Christie’s speech drew mixed reviews overnight and Wednesday morning. Some praised him for clearly stating the contrast between the Democratic and Republican parties. Others criticized his speech as too much about himself and his own ambitions, and not enough about Romney – one calculation that was widely circulated here showed that he used the word “I” five times more often than the nominee’s name.
Christie obliquely addressed the criticism at a breakfast hosted by the delegations from New Hampshire and Pennsylvania – two states that hold key primaries. Speaking after Ann Romney “freed me up” to state “the choice in even more general terms than I was originally going to do,” he said.
Another issue about Christie is how his fiery style, which went over well with party activists in the hall, played in the nation’s living rooms. That won’t be known for a while. In the meantime, however, Walker provided Republicans an example of a less confrontational way to state the same message about the need to rein in public employee unions, cut taxes and make government more friendly toward business.
Walker is more conservative on a broad range of policy issues than is Christie, but his personality is more genial. He became a star on the right when he took on public-sector unions shortly after his election in 2010, pushing a law through the state Legislature that ended most collective bargaining rights for teachers and most state workers. Earlier this summer, he defeated a union-backed effort to recall him from office, cementing his status as a hero for the party.
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His speech began by reminding delegates of the recall, then quickly segued to his belief that Republican moves aimed at “improving the business climate” will ultimately help all workers.
“Our reforms put the hard-working taxpayers back in charge,” he said, “Sadly, the federal government seems to be going in the opposite direction.”
He praised Romney as a “reformer,” a group he characterized as “leaders who think more about the next generation than just the next election” and delivered lavish praise to his fellow Wisconsin Republican, Paul D. Ryan, the vice presidential nominee.
Still to come is Ryan’s own speech and a few others that will be closely watched by party activists as test of a candidate’s future.
Tonight, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is likely to reprise some of the libertarian themes that fueled the presidential campaign of his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. And Thursday, Rubio will introduce Romney. Many Republican activists are waiting to see what, if anything, he will say to address the party’s deficit among Latino voters – a shortfall that some party strategists believe severely threatens the Republican future.
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