News Column

Republicans in Tampa Hope to Escape Akin's Shadow

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Missouri Republicans left behind a turbulent Senate race for a GOP national convention threatened by bad weather and unsettled by the furor over Rep. Todd Akin's remarks on abortion and rape.

Organizers of the Republican National Convention hope to swing the election debate back to President Barack Obama's failure to revive a sluggish economy while presenting a likeable version of Mitt Romney, who has yet to warm the hearts of voters.

The four-day convention was to begin Monday, but because of severe weather from Tropical Storm Isaac, it will convene and then recess until Tuesday afternoon.

The theme of the convention is "A Better Future."

"Our purpose is to unify the party and deliver the message that what Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have to offer is a dramatic improvement over Obama and Biden," said state Auditor Tom Schweich, a Romney delegate from St. Louis.

The Republicans have plenty of challenges on the way to that goal, not the least of which is the storm, which could disrupt logistics for 50,000 people and drown out messages the GOP wants to get across. Four years ago, Republicans gathered in St. Paul, Minn., then scrubbed the convention's main events as Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf Coast, 1,000 miles away.

Organizers also are wrestling with diminished interest, which showed when major networks said they would skip coverage on Monday night, when Ann Romney had been scheduled to speak. Organizers have since moved her speech to Tuesday to ensure network television coverage.

Republicans also are dealing with fallout from Akin's controversial comments last weekend, which continue to confound the GOP hierarchy. Akin's reference to "legitimate rape" and his assertion that the female body can shut down a pregnancy from rape ignited a national debate, knocking Republicans off their message in the run-up to Tampa. They struggled in vain to force Akin from the GOP ticket in hopes of unseating the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Claire McCaskill. Those efforts continue.

Missouri Republicans might expect special attention in Tampa after being at the center of the firestorm. State Republican chairman David Cole, who arrived in Tampa Aug. 17, said GOP leaders from other states have been approaching him with kind words.

"They come up and ask, 'How are you holding up'?" Cole said. "I fully expect that the Missouri delegation is going to be greeted warmly and supported by all the other states."

Missouri is sending 52 official delegates, along with scores of alternate delegates, spouses and guests.

Akin, who is not attending the Republican gathering, by some accounts has singlehandedly drawn attention to a GOP platform approved in draft form last week that reaffirms the party's support of a constitutional ban on abortion even in cases of rape.

"If it hadn't been for Todd Akin, nobody would have paid any attention to what's in that platform," said Allan Lichtman, a political historian and author of "Keys to the White House."

"No. 1 for Republicans in Tampa, they have to get away from the Todd Akin story, which is a dead loser for them," said Lichtman, a professor at American University.

Organizers intend to steer the conversation in other directions. But Connie Eller, a delegate from St. Louis, is among those who want to hear more about abortion from Romney in his acceptance speech on Thursday night.

Part of the Akin effect has been to highlight the divergence of opinion on abortion at the top of the GOP ticket. Ryan opposes abortion except when the life of the woman is at stake, a position that would outlaw abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Romney supports exceptions in all three cases.

"I'd like to see him (Romney) become more articulate on pro-life issues. It needs to come from his life and he needs to offer compassionate answers," said Eller, a delegate pledged to former Sen. Rick Santorum.

But more talk about Akin and abortion is not what state Rep. Jason Smith, a delegate from Salem, Mo., wants to hear.

"It's a distraction, and we need to focus on turning the economy around," he said. "My goal in Tampa -- and I believe this will happen -- is presenting a good picture of the direction America has been headed and telling how it needs to be put in a different direction and in a fiscally responsible way."

Focus on Romney

Schweich, like many Missourians, has a positive view of Romney, a reason why the former Massachusetts governor is favored to win in Missouri in November.

"To me, Mitt Romney is a genuine person, a very thoughtful person, and inspirational," Schweich said.

A Post-Dispatch/News 4 survey conducted last week in Missouri shows that 44 percent of respondents view Romney favorably and 32 percent unfavorably. A survey earlier last week by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-aligned firm, found Romney's positive ratings slightly better than those who rate him unfavorably.

But Romney's popularity in conservative-trending Missouri is a far cry from his ratings around the country, a reason why an overriding goal in Tampa is to present Americans with a likeable nominee.

In an NBC News-Wall Street Journal national poll published last week, Romney was viewed positively by just 38 percent of registered voters across the nation, compared with 44 percent with an unfavorable view. (Obama's rating was 48 percent positive, 43 percent negative.) No major presidential candidate since the 1980s has entered the stretch run of a campaign with lower personal ratings.

"You also look at polls showing that Gov. Romney is seen as a far better steward of the economy," said Romney strategist Russ Schriefer. "We think that at the end of the day, people are going to be more concerned about jobs and their livelihoods and ability to make ends meet."

Analyst Stu Rothenberg, a commentator and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Report, said Romney has two goals in Tampa, one of which is to "turn the discussion away from Todd Akin and 'legitimate rape' and back to the topic of jobs and the economy."

Goal No. 2? Romney needs "to make himself warmer, more friendly and likeable," he said.

'Loose cannons'

Both parties try mightily to present a good show at their national conventions. The stage at the Tampa Bay Times Forum will be surrounded by 13 oversized video screens in what organizers describe as "a Frank Lloyd Wright piece of inspired architecture."

Nonetheless, political conventions have steadily lost their luster, a reason why networks have cut back on coverage and why it has become vogue for politicians like McCaskill to declare that they're skipping theirs altogether.

Not since 1976 in Kansas City, when neither Gerald Ford nor Ronald Reagan entered the GOP convention with enough delegates to secure the nomination, has a convention had real intrigue. (Ford eventually won.)

Nonetheless, conventions matter. They offer a prime chance for political parties to reach voters when many are tuning into the presidential election for the first time. Taxpayers shell out $18 million to support each convention, and many want their money's worth. Four years ago, Obama's acceptance speech in Denver commanded a television audience of 38.4 million viewers, a robust rating. A week later at the GOP gathering in St. Paul, John McCain drew an even bigger audience of 38.9 million people.

Conventions yield memorable events. A masterful speech at the Democrats' 2004 gathering in Boston by Obama, an obscure state senator from Illinois, planted the seeds for his rapid rise. Likewise, in 2008, Sarah Palin delivered an electrifying speech in St. Paul before encountering difficulties later as the Republicans' vice presidential candidate.

Despite minute-by-minute planning, these quadrennial gatherings often produce surprises and embarrassments: then-Gov. Bill Clinton's 33-minute speech in Atlanta in 1988 that went way beyond its time slot; Jimmy Carter's fruitless attempt at a conciliatory handshake from Edward M. Kennedy in New York in 1980; Pat Buchanan's "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican gathering in Houston.

"There are a lot of loose cannons in the party," noted Rothenberg, ticking off the names of a few who likely will be looking for microphones in Tampa. "And we have so many national media reporters and cable outlets looking for somebody who is going to say something ridiculous or outrageous."

Despite the uncertainties, Cole, who is leading the Missouri delegation, expects success.

"We're going to tell the great story of Mitt Romney -- his family, his business career, his faith that is so integral to his life; the man who saved the Olympics in Salt Lake City," he said. "We're going to contrast that with the failed policies of this administration and ask the American people if they're better off now than they were three-and-a-half years ago."

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