TAMPA, Fla. — Tropical Storm Isaac may have stalled the convention, but not the party atmosphere.
This story first appeared in the August 28, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As Tropical Storm Isaac churned off the Florida coast and moderate rain and wind were felt outside, the GOP threw itself a party under the covered dome of Tropicana Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team. The storm forced the RNC to push to today all official business of the convention, including adoption of the Republican platform and a roll call to officially nominate Mitt Romney as the party’s presidential nominee.
Romney is still slated to give his formal acceptance speech on Thursday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Other speeches, including the keynote by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will be condensed into three days through Thursday, barring a major impact from the storm, which forecasters expected to intensify into a hurricane barreling toward Gulf Coast states, but with Tampa likely missing the brunt.
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Russ Schriefer, a Romney campaign strategist, said in a press briefing on Monday morning that officials are keeping a close eye on Isaac and taking a “wait and see attitude,” but for now the three-day convention will proceed on schedule.
Under the banner convention theme of “A Better Future,” Schriefer said, “We want to define what President Obama has done over the last four years — how and why he’s failed and how his leadership really failed the American people, including a stagnant economy…and, more importantly the disappointment that many Americans feel that he just hasn’t lived up to the promises of the past four years.”
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus gaveled in the convention on Monday and adjourned for the day shortly thereafter, but not before the RNC activated a “debt clock” that will measure increases in the federal debt from Monday through Thursday. Another debt clock is currently activated at the site, showing the entire federal debt, which stands at $15.9 trillion.
“Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan understand that burdening our children with such massive debt is a loan on their future,” Priebus said. “We can do better than this, and on Day One of the Romney-Ryan administration, Mitt Romney will take immediate action to cut federal spending and bring the debt under control.”
Party loyalists reflected the disenchantment over the national debt and the Obama administration at the “welcoming” party on Sunday at Tropicana Field in Saint Petersburg. Though it had been described as a “monumental occasion” in a press release — for the first time, the welcoming event invited both delegates and media — attendance was dampened by Isaac. American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and AirTran canceled or delayed flights to Tampa and nearby airports, holding back many delegates.
The indoor stadium lent the proceedings a three-ring circus vibe, with delegates and media seated at hundreds of tables and food vendors hocking free shrimp, mac ’n’ cheese and shredded pork sprawled around a center stage for live entertainment, along with performances from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders, among other acts. Top 40 music and classic disco made for background noise, and few danced to the latest tunes spun by French DJ David Guetta.
Delegates shared personal stories, many as small business owners burdened by what they perceive to be overregulation under the Obama administration, as well as voicing their support for Rep. Paul Ryan as Romney’s vice presidential pick.
“[Romney] knows how to create jobs and work the economy,” said Ron Fitzwater, a Missouri delegate. “He’s had experience from the executive level and he brings those powers to the office of the president. We need someone to understand business.”
Oscar Poole, a delegate and 82-year-old owner of Poole’s Bar-B-Q in East Ellijay, Ga., said, “[Romney] knows about business and I’m in small business and he wants to take the rules and regulations off that are stifling creativity.” Wearing a yellow three-button suit and Uncle Sam top hat, Poole added, “He has a successful record of business and that’s what America needs now.”
Still, there are many delegates who are only recent Romney converts. The long primary meant delegates had strong opinions about other candidates. George Wiland, a delegate from Tulsa, Okla., was a Rick Santorum supporter until the former presidential candidate released his delegates Friday.
Wiland, who’s also a constituent services representative for Rep. John Sullivan, said of Santorum: “I liked his background and his time in service. He’s pro-life, pro-family, against gay marriage.”
Kenya Cox, a Kansas delegate, had also been rallying behind Santorum and was disappointed the former congressman lost the nomination.
“Santorum’s a common, everyday kind of guy. You feel he could be my next-door neighbor,” she said. “[Romney] seemed more distant and removed.”
The addition of Ryan to the ticket seems to have earned Romney a helpful common touch.
“Paul Ryan has an Oklahoma tie. His wife was born and raised here and he still comes to do hunting,” Wiland says. “There’s absolutely good hunting in Oklahoma — wild turkey, deer, wild boar, pheasant, quail.”
“We put [our Santorum support] aside. It’s hard,” said Cox, who works in constituent services for Rep. Mike Pompeo. “It’s taken some time to build that cohesiveness that you need, and Ryan has helped him, absolutely.”
Campaigns benefit from the use of popular surrogates. Marco Rubio, for instance, the popular Florida senator, is introducing Romney on Thursday, while many were looking forward to Christie’s keynote. But the Bush name is less well-received. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has criticized the Republican tenor on immigration, won’t appear on broadcast networks Thursday, with the networks beginning coverage at 10 p.m. And noticeably absent from the campaign trail has been former President George W. Bush, while, by comparison, former President Bill Clinton has been a nearly ubiquitous supporter of Obama’s.
“They understand they had their time,” Fitzwater, a Bush fan, said. “They don’t want to influence the politics and they know it’s governor Romney’s moment to shine.”
Wiland says it’s a tactical decision by the Romney campaign.
“Barack Obama centered his whole 2008 campaign on being against Bush,” he said. “Why give him a chance to say he’s not Bush again?”
Jim Smith, an attendee from Arkansas and 60-year-old owner of a company that produces broiler hatching eggs, said overregulation has dramatically increased food prices.
“There is a regulation requiring 15 percent ethanol in gasoline and has driven up food prices — the price of corn is $9 a bushel now,” Smith said. “Much of our animal industries are in trouble. There have been a number of companies bought by foreign organizations, so that has put us in a difficult place. I think [Obama’s] moved us to toward more regulation and larger government, and what we need is to move away from those things.”
Texas delegate Harold Jenkins, also 60 years old, who owns a small commercial building maintenance company, said the top priority of a Romney administration, should he win the White House, is to “get the fiscal house in order, fix the deficit and reform entitlement programs.”
Jenkins said he was happy with the choice of Ryan as Romney’s running mate.
“He is the chair of the [House] Budget Committee and that is what he really knows and seems to really understand,” Jenkins said. “Romney has an understanding of how to get businesses and the economy started again. With Ryan in the picture, those two things can go hand in hand.”
Getting Americans back to work is what Kathy Dietrich, an alternate delegate from Kentucky, would like to see a Romney administration make a top priority.
“We need jobs. We need freedom for entrepreneurs to do their jobs and to make businesses grow, to lower regulations that are stifling our businesses,” she said.
Dietrich, who is 66 and retired, was a small business owner hurt, she said, by Environmental Protection Agency regulations. She said she owned a small boat business and was forced to test the water under an EPA regulation that almost forced her out of business.