Why the GOP’s Convention in Tampa May Not Be the Party They Are Planning

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 23 2012 8:49 PM

Conventional Wisdom

Republicans are growing worried that they are headed to a “brokered convention” in Tampa. It’s unlikely—but there is still plenty to worry about.

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Planned Chaos: A Nominee Arrives in Tampa

The most likely scenario is that a nominee arrives in Tampa with the delegates he needs. But, in this election season, that won’t spare him trouble. It's not just that bruised feelings will have to be managed between the winner and his vanquished rivals. He will also have to unite the party behind his candidacy. That's been the challenge before, but perhaps never with such a weak field of potential nominees. The story of this campaign, in part, is that the best men did not run. The continued chatter about Daniels, Bush, and Christie confirms the weakness in those that did.

So the eventual nominee, whoever he is, will face some immediate challenges. How to manage the disappointment in the other camps? How to ensure that they leave Tampa united and ready to take on an incumbent president? For Mitt Romney, the problem will be exciting the delegates and the conservative pundits. It hasn’t been an easy prospect for other GOP nominees, even some who had a stronger hand to play. Think, for example, of the chaos that has been created by nominees striving to repair the breach by generating excitement in the party base. In 1992, George Bush's convention planners let Pat Buchanan speak. His firebrand call for a cultural war defined the event—and the party—in a way that the Bush team never intended. In 1996 and 2008, the GOP nominees used their vice president picks to electrify the party base. But the undisciplined Jack Kemp—a fervent supply-sider—was never a good match for nominee Bob Dole, who had been a deficit hawk his whole career. John McCain excited the party’s base and convention-goers with his pick of Sarah Palin. Of course, the choice also led to chaos in his campaign. 

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In 2004, the George W. Bush team used their convention to present a moderate rather than conservative face to the country. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Arnold Schwartzeneger all spoke in coveted prime-time spots. You could imagine the this year’s nominee wanting to do something similar, especially as some in the party fear that extremism in the primaries has pulled the GOP too far to the right. But is that option available to Mitt Romney? With a right flank suspicious of his conservative bona fides, he'll be under far greater pressure to show support for movement conservatives. If he doesn't give them pride of place, there will be grumbling.

There's always grumbling. Hillary supporters grumbled about their candidate getting proper deference at Barack Obama's convention. Sure, but Democrats were always going to rally around the first African-American nominee. Also, Romney-grumbling will be different: The grumbling will be of the same order that has dogged Romney throughout his campaign. Simply giving Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, or Sarah Palin 15 minutes in the spotlight is not going to make hard-core conservatives who already distrust Romney suddenly believe that he's going to promote their values.

If Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich is the nominee, there will be a different challenge. Party regulars will be happy, but all of the Republican strategists who warn that nominating one of these two men would alienate independent voters—thereby sinking the party’s chances in the presidential race, as well as in House and Senate contests—will continue to talk to reporters like me. 

The Chaos Neutralizer: Barack Obama 

The good news for any Republican is that the great unifying figure will be the sitting president. The desire to replace Barack Obama will bring Tea Party supporters and establishment Republicans together around a common enemy. Of course, a deep disgust with the incumbent president wasn’t enough to oust the reviled Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. Then again, if the economy stays soft, it might just be enough in 2012, even for a party as divided as the GOP.