News Column

Storm-shortened RNC Puts Pressure on Romney

Aug 28, 2012

William March


Mitt Romney needs to convince American voters he's a regular guy -- but thanks to Tropical Storm Isaac, he's got one less day at his nominating convention to do it.

Shortening the RNC 2012 convention program by one day, the storm crunched a carefully arranged schedule, forcing what experts say is probably a frantic scramble to rearrange speaking slots, shorten speeches, cancel some events and move others.

It also may force a change in the tone of the message so the GOP and its candidate won't appear preoccupied with politics and winning, in callous disregard of a potential tragedy.

"It's a setback -- a quarter of your communications time has been taken away from you," said Tad Devine, an experienced Democratic convention planner.

"It's a complex and difficult messaging challenge. When you're having a party, the last thing you want is a tragedy in the background."

But Devine and others said it's not a critical setback and could even prove to be an opportunity, with benefits for GOP messaging.

"I don't think it is really going to change much of what we're going to do," Romney campaign strategist Russ Schriefer said Monday. "We're going to continue to talk about the differences between Gov. Romney and President Obama -- that's a healthy debate and important debate."

"I think we're going to be able to get it out very clearly that President Obama has failed, that he and Gov. Romney have very different philosophies."

The storm may take some of the emphasis off the "warm and fuzzy positives" that Republicans had hoped to show about Romney, said GOP pollster John McLaughlin, but instead, it may focus people's attention on the Republican response to the storm.

That could include fundraising relief efforts at the convention, or elected officials in Gulf states, mostly Republicans, "doing what they're supposed to do."

"The choreographed infomercial they were going to show the public isn't going to work," but, "You're going to see supporters of Romney prominent in the news," McLaughlin said.

Schriefer said Romney convention planners "are starting conversations about a relief effort; we plan as needed to be there to help."

The hurricane will draw viewers to news shows, where they're bound to see reports on the convention and the GOP messaging, he said.

Four years ago, a hurricane threat to New Orleans also caused cancellation of the first day's events at the Minnesota GOP convention -- a demonstration of concern that was probably a public relations advantage, McLaughlin noted.

In addition, the storm has forced convention planners to "tighten up" the event, "excluding the less desirable events and speakers," possibly including Donald Trump, said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican.

Trump was never officially scheduled to speak, but told reporters Saturday that plans for him to have a surprise role were cancelled because of the schedule changes.

In any case, the schedule change won't affect the most critical parts of the convention, said veteran Republican political strategist and University of Southern California political scientist Dan Schnur.

"The convention can be one-day long or one-month long, but either way there's only one hour that matters -- the acceptance speech," he said.

"The smaller news window makes it harder for Republicans to get their message out, but in the long run it's all about Romney's speech."

From the outset of the campaign, Romney has been less personally popular with voters than most presidential nominees.

Portrayals of Romney's life history, his family and his business career during the convention are intended to combat that problem.

Even before the hurricane cancellation, television networks had made it clear Monday events would get scant coverage, leading to plans to move a Monday night speech by Ann Romney to Tuesday night.

The network's move is another step in the gradual reduction of time they're willing to devote to the conventions.

Now, Devine said, with only three nights of GOP messaging to cover, "It puts pressure on the networks to do the same thing to the Democrats" -- cover only three days of the Charlotte convention.

The networks' scant coverage has led to speculation the parties could end the tradition of having four-day events -- but that speculation is heard during every election cycle, said McLaughlin.

He said the declining coverage doesn't mean the conventions are doomed -- the coverage is shifting from network broadcasts to cable and new media.

"Every four years they talk about changing the primary system and changing the conventions," he said.

"They're already more of a cable news event than a prime time broadcast event. Think about how many people are tweeting from this convention."

Source: (c)2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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