TAMPA — Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention was drifting along unremarkably for a couple of hours. For Georgians, even Attorney General Sam Olens’ speech — the only one this week by someone from our state — suffered from his pairing with his Floridian counterpart, Pam Bondi; the tag-team format just didn’t work all that well. Speeches from Sen. John Thune, the South Dakotan whose name was bandied about (inexplicably, I’d say tonight) as a potential presidential candidate, and Sen. John McCain, the 2008 nominee, were flat.
Then came the wave.
It started with Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate. To be honest, I wasn’t able to catch much of his speech, but I could tell that the crowd responded to it with much more energy than any of the earlier speakers generated.
Then came Condoleezza Rice. The former secretary of state is highly regarded for her intellect and experience, but I don’t know anyone who expected a set-piece speech from her like the one she gave tonight. She’s obviously known as a foreign-policy expert, but her topics ran the gamut: immigration, education and school choice (which Rice, who grew up in Jim Crow Birmingham, called “the civil rights issue of our day”), and the federal debt. She was powerful on the moral aspects of American leadership in the world and the threat that our finances pose to our ability to exercise it: “There is no country, not even a rising China, that can do more harm to us than we can do to ourselves if we do not do the hard work at home.” She was firm in speaking against the “narrative of grievance and entitlement,” which she described as alien to America. She was wholly impressive and utterly convincing as a future politician (though she’s served in government, she’s never run for office).
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez followed Rice and, having never heard her speak before, I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of putting her between such a powerful speech by Rice and the night’s headliner, Paul Ryan. But Martinez was very impressive. She spoke of her upbringing in a family with its own small security business — and of working, at age 18, as an armed guard for it. She had one of the lines of the night, describing her surprised reaction after she and her husband met with Republicans trying to convince her to switch to their party years ago: “I’ll be damned. We’re Republicans!”
But Ryan, of course, was every bit the closer the GOP wanted this night. He took on President Obama directly and forcefully, as the vice presidential nominee traditionally is expected to do. He spoke of wasted stimulus money that went to companies “like Solyndra, with their gold-plated connections, subsidized jobs and make-believe markets.” He welcomed the confrontation with Democrats over Medicare: “Our nation needs this debate, we [Romney and Ryan] want this debate, and we will win this debate.” He described the Obama campaign as “a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.”
He defined himself as the youthful candidate on the ticket and in the race, playfully comparing Romney’s songs, which he’s heard “on the campaign bus and in many hotel elevators” with his own playlist, which “starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin.” But more importantly, he made a play for young voters with the line of the convention, maybe the campaign, so far: “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
Two nights in, this campaign is taking a shape that it sorely lacked before Ryan joined the ticket and, to some degree, even until this week. It will be interesting to see not only how Romney closes it out Thursday, but how the Democrats react in Charlotte next week.
– By Kyle Wingfield