The Republicans hold their national convention in Tampa this week, Tropical Storm Isaac permitting, and it will culminate in the nominations of Mitt Romney for president and Paul Ryan for vice president.
Next week it will be the Democrats' turn, in Charlotte, N.C., and the renomination of President Obama and Vice President Biden.
The common refrain lately has been that conventions don't matter anymore, that it's just a four-day (three days this year) shmooze-fest that is little more than a public relations showcase for the two major parties. There is some truth in that. But it's not that simple.
Once upon a time, the national convention is where presidential nominees were decided — usually by party bosses. Think Democrats, 1968, with Hubert Humphrey winning the nomination without having entered (let alone won) a single primary. That all but ended with the advent of the primaries and caucuses in the early 1970s where, with few exceptions, voters picked the eventual nominee and we would know who it was weeks, if not months, in advance.
With the identity of the top of the ticket no longer in doubt by convention-time, at least there was the excitement of the naming of the running mate. But the Democrats ended that tradition in 1984, when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro in advance of the convention, and Republicans followed in 1996, when Bob Dole chose Jack Kemp before their convention opened.
Still, we're missing the boat if all we focus on are the nominees. Things still manage to happen at the conventions that we didn't anticipate. A new face will come to the podium who will unexpectedly shine; think Barack Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.
This week the focus is on the Republicans. Now, I could spend forever talking about great GOP convention moments of the past. For instance, it took the party 36 ballots at their 1880 convention before a dark horse like Rep. James Garfield of Ohio would be nominated. The GOP was deeply divided at its 1912 convention between forces aligned with President William Howard Taft and those backing Theodore Roosevelt, the former president. TR had the people but Taft had the party machinery and, ultimately, the nomination. Thomas Dewey needed a third ballot to be nominated in 1948, the last time a Republican convention needed more than one ballot to arrive at its nominee.
As I said, I could go on and on about this stuff and, sadly, I usually do. But I'm going to limit this column to five memorable Republican conventions of the past half century. (All video clips courtesy of YouTube.)
1964 (San Francisco) — Conservative hopes and dreams had been thwarted for years, beginning with the Thomas Dewey nominations, but none more traumatic than watching their hero, Robert Taft, lose to Dwight Eisenhower at the '52 convention. (That year featured the memorable tirade of Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, a Taft supporter, pointing at Dewey, an Ike backer, and all but blame him for the party's defeats of the past.)
But the right triumphed in '64 with Barry Goldwater's nomination. Goldwater's speech — "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" — was as dramatic as the booing of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater's rival for the nomination, when he came to the podium to single out the ultra rightwing John Birch Society as one of the groups that posed a danger to the Republican Party.
1976 (Kansas City) — Goldwater may have been the one who planted the seed for the conservative movement, but Ronald Reagan was going to bring them to the promised land. The problem: when Watergate took down Richard Nixon before his term was up, Gerald Ford was elevated to the presidency — something Reagan didn't count on. Ford and Reagan battled it out throughout the primary season, and while Ford went into the convention with the lead, it was not a done deal. Reagan tried everything in his power to sway uncommitted delegates; he even named a relatively liberal senator, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, as his running mate in an attempt to win over some wavering Keystone State Republicans. Reagan ultimately lost the nomination to Ford but the margin was close: 1,187 to 1,070.
One of the high points of the convention was Reagan's speech to the delegates, after Ford's nomination was official, urging the party to unite. The speech, however, may have been less about backing Ford and more about Reagan's future.
1980 (Detroit) — This was the first convention I attended, and it came three years before I joined ABC News. So I was there not as a journalist but as an observer. The only drama was not whether Ronald Reagan would be the nominee — that was determined earlier — but whom he would pick as his running mate. The rumors going through the Joe Louis Arena was whether former President Ford would accede to Reagan's request to join the ticket. Ultimately, for a variety of reasons, he could/would not.
But I will never forget the sheer excitement, on the third evening of the convention, when Reagan unexpectedly came to the podium a day early and announced that the Ford deal was dead and that he was instead going with George H.W. Bush, his rival during the primaries. Everybody was stunned. It had to be one of the truly unscripted, unexpected moments in recent convention history. I especially remember one infuriated woman telling me she couldn't believe Reagan's betrayal given the fact Bush "was a Communist" and a "member of the Council of Foreign Relations." Aside from the surprise of Reagan's appearance, and his naming Bush — I was convinced it would be Dick Lugar for V.P. — another lasting memory is when I sat next to Harold Stassen, the former Boy Wonder governor of Minnesota who had sadly grown into a caricature for all his unsuccessful presidential campaigns, and watching him tear up during the singing of the national anthem.
1992 (Houston) — This was the convention where President Bush was renominated, but much of the discussion was about the speech given by Pat Buchanan, who challenged Bush in the primaries. History tells us that Buchanan's speech, in which he ridiculed the Democrats and spoke of "culture wars," was intemperate and intolerant and likely turned off scores of independent and moderate voters. But I stood there on the floor of the convention that year and remember him receiving ovation after ovation.
Another memory: Ronald Reagan's farewell speech. We all knew it would probably be the last time we would see him. And for most of us, it was.
2008 (St. Paul) — As I've said many times, Sarah Palin's acceptance speech for vice president was the highlight of the convention and it knocked the delegates' socks off. (Her famous "lipstick" quote is about four minutes into this clip.)
But for me, most memorable — most astonishing — was the speech given by Joe Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for V.P. just eight years prior, in which he warmly endorsed John McCain and ripped his former party. Lieberman, who was long on the outs with the Democrats over the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues, was apparently McCain's preferred running mate ... a move that, had it happened, would have caused open revolt on the convention floor. If you've ever been to a Republican convention, you know a candidate who supports abortion rights is not about to be part of the ticket. One memory that stuck with me: as Lieberman was talking, I was standing near the box where his wife, Hadassah, was sitting with some GOP luminaries (I think Cindy McCain and the elder Bushes, but I could be mistaken). And each time her husband said something detrimental to the Democrats, she seemed to be the only person in the arena not applauding.
We'll all be watching for new memories beginning on Tuesday.
(FULL PERSONAL DISCLOSURE: For the first time in decades — and certainly for the first time since I've been at NPR — I will not be attending the conventions this year. My role with NPR's StateImpact project makes it unfeasible for me to spend a week each in Tampa and Charlotte. For those of you fellow political junkies who will be going, don't waste time feeling sorry for me. But you can make America great, and me happy, by picking up as many campaign buttons for me as you can. Between the souvenir shops, media events and the delegates themselves, there is a treasure trove of political items to be found at these national conventions. And don't you want me to be happy? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Missouri Senate update. A week later and everyone is still reeling over the comment made by Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee in Missouri, about rape and pregnancy. For those who have been hiding in a spider hole (or sunning in Cancun) and missed the whole fracas, Akin was asked on a St. Louis TV program last Sunday whether he believes abortion should be justified in cases of rape. His answer, that rape rarely results in pregnancy, immediately went viral. His actual words:
"It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down."
At issue was not Akin's personal opposition to abortion; many in the party oppose the procedure, even in the case of rape or incest, a position that is part of the Republicans' national platform. If you believe abortion is murder, then how do you allow for exceptions? That's the view of most House Republicans, including Paul Ryan, the likely nominee for vice president. But Akin's declaration that rape is unlikely to cause pregnancy is over the top for two reasons. One, it has nothing to do with sane medical information that can readily be found on the Planet Earth. And two, it simply stunned those in the GOP who feared, rightfully, that his comments jeopardized their chances of defeating Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in November. Polls have shown for quite some time McCaskill to be perhaps the most vulnerable Senate incumbent in the nation. It's a seat Republicans must win if they are to have a chance to capture a Senate majority this year. And now it's slipping away.
Mitt Romney said Akin's comments were "insulting, inexcusable and, frankly, wrong." He later called them "deeply offensive." The National Republican Senatorial Committee said it would end all financial and organizational support for Akin. American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-founded Super PAC that has been pouring in money to defeat Democrats, announced it would pull out of the Show Me State. Many Republicans and conservatives called for Akin to withdraw from the race. He would have none of it.
(For the record, Akin did say that he misspoke. "Rape is never legitimate," the New York Times quoted him as saying. "It's an evil act that's committed by violent predators. I used the wrong words in the wrong way. ... I also know that people do become pregnant from rape. I didn't mean to imply that that wasn't the case." But the damage had been done.)
Democrats were almost giddy with delight. McCaskill, who made it clear during the three-way GOP primary that she was hoping Akin would win — on the assumption he was the easiest to defeat in November — was in no hurry to see Akin quit the contest. Democrats nationally, already on the offensive with its charge that the GOP is waging a "war on women," are attempting to tie Akin to Romney and other Republican candidates.
Some see a parallel to what happened in Delaware two years ago, when a sure GOP Senate pickup disintegrated with the nomination of Christine O'Donnell. There are differences, to be sure. Defeating a sitting senator is never easy, but this particular seat has switched parties three times in a row: Mel Carnahan beat John Ashcroft in 2000, Jim Talent beat appointee Jean Carnahan in a special 2002 election, and McCaskill beat Talent in 2006.
McCaskill herself was particularly vulnerable this cycle, going back to at least March of last year, when it was reported that not only had she been billing taxpayers for her flights she took around the state on an airplane that she and her husband owned, but that she failed to pay personal property taxes on the plane for four years. "Air Claire" they called it.
They're not talking about that anymore.
The efforts by some Republicans to push Akin out of the race continue, even though the deadline for him to leave and have the party replace him on the ballot was last Tuesday. He can still file a petition by Sept. 25 to have himself removed. But there is no indication he will do so.
Deadline shmedline. This is far from an exact similarity, but New Jersey Democrats were faced with a Senate nominee deemed unelectable in 2002. Incumbent Robert Torricelli, rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee over his improper financial dealings, was thought to be dead in the water in his bid for a second term. On Sept. 30, he decided to abandon his campaign. The next day, Democrats replaced him on the ballot with former Sen. (and longtime bitter rival) Frank Lautenberg, even though it was past the deadline to do so. The GOP cried foul and went to court to protest the "brazen attempt to undermine democracy." The state Supreme Court sided with the Democrats.
Ballot replacements. Missouri has lost two Senate nominees in tragic plane crashes in recent decades. On Oct. 16, 2000, the plane carrying Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), campaigning against GOP Sen. John Ashcroft, went down en route to a fundraiser. His death came too late to remove his name from the ballot, but he was elected posthumously. And on Aug. 3, 1976, on the night he won the Democratic primary, Rep. Jerry Litton's plane crashed. Former Gov. Warren Hearnes, who finished a distant second to Litton in the primary, was named as the substitute Democratic nominee, but he lost the general election to Republican John Danforth.
This week. Primaries on Tuesday in Alaska, Arizona and Vermont. Of the three states, the most interesting is clearly Arizona.
Senate — Jon Kyl (R), the Senate Minority Whip, is retiring after three terms. From the beginning, the favorite has been GOP Rep. Jeff Flake, an earmark-averse conservative who has been in the House since 2001. He has the backing of both Kyl and the other Republican senator, John McCain, as well as the Club for Growth. But Flake is being portrayed as a soft-on-immigration Washington insider by his leading primary opponent, businessman Wil Cardon, who has poured millions of his own money in hopes of an upset. It's not likely to happen. Cardon seems to have slowed down his spending spree in recent weeks in what some see as a sign that it's a hopeless cause. Democrats, who have not won a Senate race here since Dennis DeConcini in 1988, will put up Richard Carmona, the former Surgeon General of the U.S.
House — Key primaries to watch:
1st CD: The redrawing of this district forced freshman Rep. Paul Gosar (R) to depart for the more safely-Republican 4th CD. Ann Kirkpatrick, whom Gosar unseated in 2010 after one term, is the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination. Three Republicans are seeking their party's nod, with former state Rep. Jonathan Paton the frontrunner. Paton hoped to challenge then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in a different district in 2010 but lost the primary. This may be the state's closest House race this year.
4th CD: The aforementioned Gosar faces a tight battle with state Sen. Ron Gould, a social and fiscal conservative backed by the Club for Growth, who faults Gosar for voting to raise the federal debt ceiling. Another Republican candidate, Pinal Co. Sheriff Paul Babeu, dropped out of the race in May following allegations that he threatened a former Mexican boyfriend with deportation if he went public with their relationship. Whoever wins the GOP primary is all but assured of capturing the seat in the general.
5th CD: In the district being vacated by Flake, former Rep. Matt Salmon (R), who honored his three-terms-and-out pledge when he left the House after 2000 (and subsequently lost a gov. bid in 2002), is seeking a comeback. He's in a tough race against ex-state House Speaker Kirk Adams, who is highlighting his lack of Washington ties. Newt Gingrich, forced to endure the hostility of Salmon when he was U.S. House speaker, has endorsed Adams, along with Sens. Kyl and McCain. Salmon has the backing of Gov. Jan Brewer as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The Democratic nominee in this solidly Republican district will be Spencer Morgan, a 26-year-old former community college student body president.
6th CD: The Republican primary here features a battle between two freshmen: Ben Quayle (of the old 3rd CD) and Dave Schweikert (of the old 5th). Two years ago, Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, replaced retiring GOP Rep. John Shadegg, while Schweikert ousted Dem incumbent Harry Mitchell. Quayle vs. Schweikert, already personal and ugly, added another wrinkle last week when Politico reported that Quayle was among a group of Republican congressmen on a junket to Israel last year who took a late-night dip in the Sea of Galilee last year. (Yes, this is what constitutes political news these days.) Quayle had another bit of unwanted publicity during his 2010 campaign when he admitted (after first denying) he wrote about the hot Scottsdale nightlife on a Web site under the name of Brock Landers. But Quayle, who talks about his willingness to compromise and work with Democrats, still seems to be the party establishment's choice in this race, as he has secured the endorsements of Kyl and McCain. Schweikert, appealing to more conservative elements in the party, seems to view Quayle with contempt; his campaign is portraying him as a privileged lightweight. But one Schweikert mailer, which said Quayle "goes both ways" — on the issues, that is — was condemned by McCain as one that "crosses the boundary of decent political dialogue and discourse."
Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.
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And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. I was on vacation last week but you still have time to submit your answer to the previous week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN T-shirt!
Most recent winner: David Steeves of North Olmsted, Ohio
ON THE CALENDAR:
Aug. 28-30 — Republican National Convention, Tampa, Fla.
Aug. 28 — Primaries in Alaska, Arizona and Vermont.
Sept. 4-6 — Democratic National Convention, Charlotte, N.C.
Sept. 6 — Massachusetts primary.
Sept. 11 — Primaries in Delaware, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Oct. 3 — First presidential debate, University of Denver. Also: TOTN's Political Junkie segment from St. Louis.
Oct. 10 — TOTN's Political Junkie segment from Columbus, Ohio.
Oct. 11 — Vice Presidential debate, Centre College in Danville, Ky.
Oct. 16 — Second presidential debate, Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Oct. 17 — TOTN's Political Junkie segment from Las Vegas.
Oct. 22 — Third presidential debate, Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
Nov. 6 — ELECTION DAY. Also: Louisiana primary.
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This day in campaign history: State Sen. Loren Leman wins the Republican primary for lieutenant governor of Alaska. A pro-business, pro-environment conservative, Leman gets 21,000 votes, about 29 percent of the GOP vote, in a five-way race. Finishing a close second, fewer than 2,000 votes behind, is the mayor of Wasilla, Sarah Palin (Aug. 27, 2002).
Leman will go on to win the election in November, running with gubernatorial candidate/current U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski. Four years later, Palin will oust Gov. Murkowski in the GOP primary.
Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: firstname.lastname@example.org