The last time Republicans held a nominating convention in Florida, Richard Nixon and his buttoned-down crew descended on Miami and got a far different reception from that accorded George McGovern, the anti-war Democrat who had been nominated in the very same city just a month or so earlier.
The demonstrators who came to cheer Mr. McGovern apparently stayed on to jeer Nixon, and the contrast wasn’t lost on America’s voters, who gave the incumbent president an overwhelming landslide that November. That year’s conventions marked the beginning of the end of the old convention system as rules changed, party establishments found themselves on the defensive, and nominations came to be sewed up long before a party’s delegates convened to ratify what the primaries and caucuses already had made clear.
The last real challenge to an incumbent president within his own party took place four years later when Ronald Reagan, benefiting from the changes taking place, almost overtook Gerald R. Ford, but since then, the party conventions have become little more than media shows increasingly ignored by the very media they are designed to please.
Still, party conventions remain important both to showcase the party nominees and to give competing factions within a party’s coalition a chance to come together behind the party standard-bearer. The day or so leading up to the nominee’s acceptance speech and the speech itself are incredibly important because they give a non-incumbent candidate his first real chance to tell his own story, engage an audience of millions and let voters who haven’t been obsessed with him or his campaign earlier see for themselves just who is running for the most important office in the land.
This chance may prove even more vital this year because Mitt Romney already has faced an unprecedentedly negative campaign by the ObamaWhite House and campaign machine, designed to define him as a nutty, unprincipled tax cheat who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the White House. This week for the first time, Mr. Romney and his supporters have had a chance to talk directly to the voting public rather than communicating through sound bites, 30-second spots or news media that almost universally are hostile to him, his party and the positions he has taken.
Most of those obsessed by politics and campaigns may have made up their minds, but millions of voters less taken with things political don’t begin to pay attention to presidential politics until the conventions and the weeks that follow. All that went before is discounted as regular folks focus on the candidates they first get to know during the convention and the general-election campaign. That makes the impression conveyed by a nominee — and especially a non-incumbent nominee such as Mr. Romney — during convention week incredibly important.
This year’s convention managers postponed the real business for a day in deference to Hurricane Isaac, which brought only rainy and windy conditions as it passed by Tampa on Tuesday, but the weather is expected to be clear and calm by the time Mr. Romney delivers what he hopes will be a blockbuster acceptance speech on Thursday.
Democratic strategists have been trying to force the GOP off-message this week or get in the way of the Republican show with surrogates, attack ads and presidential attacks. They even planned to send Vice President Joseph R. Biden to Tampa to compete with the Republican message, but Democratic strategists canceled Mr. Biden’s trip in the hope that nature’s storm would prove even more disruptive — if less humorous — than he might have been.
The Republicans opened their 2012 convention in better shape than in 1980 and 1988. In 1980, although voters were unhappy with the incumbent, President Carter led Reagan in most polls until mid-October, and in 1988, George H.W. Bush left his party’s convention trailing the last Massachusetts governor to win a major-party nomination by 17 points in most polls. Both Reagan and Mr. Bush went on to win in November.
Mr. Romney came into this convention in a virtual dead heat with President Obama, and while he needs a bump from Tampa, the hill he faces today looks to be far smaller than those Reagan and Mr. Bush had to climb.
David A. Keene is president of the NRA, former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a member of the board of the ACU, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.
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