GOP DEATH WATCH

Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Ann Romney: Only One of Them Remembers Mitt at the GOP Convention

Even Hurricane Isaac can’t blow away the stench of doom that surrounds the GOP convention. The convention was shortened by a day because of the hurricane, which may have been a blessing in disguise. There are Ron Paul supporters who are incensed at party rules that seem intended to diminish their influence. Paul himself pointedly refuses to endorse Mitt Romney. The party was still trying to distance itself from the Todd Akin mess, even as another GOP Senate candidate, Tom Smith of Pennsylvania, compared his daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy to rape.

So it was up to the speakers to try to revive the party and focus voters on why they should vote for Mitt Romney. On that last point in particular, the night was a flop.

Rick Santorum, the darling of the religious right and a repository of disdain for all things Romney, was true to form during his address, lashing out at marriage equality by linking it to welfare dependency.”The fact is that marriage is disappearing in places where government dependency is highest. Most single mothers do heroic work and an amazing job raising their children, but if America is going to succeed, we must stop the assault on marriage and the family,” Santorum proclaimed. “Under President Obama, the dream of freedom and opportunity has become a nightmare of dependency with almost half of America receiving some government benefit.” (It’s worth noting that single largest segment of these freeloaders consists of people getting Social Security.)

Now Santorum was on display to rev up the right, which remains tepid about Romney. But his focus on social issues doesn’t do the party much of a favor in a election year when they are trying to steer clear of them. It plays to a loud portion of the base, but there’s a reason that Santorum isn’t the party’s nominee, because that portion of the base isn’t the same as the party establishment. Why surrender valuable prime-time real estate to someone who is going to reinforce stereotypes (that happen to be true) that the Republicans are fixated on social issues while the economy suffers.

By contrast, Chris Christie, the husky governor of New Jersey, offered a broader vision for the party–broader not just because of his girth but because he seemed to have been pitching himself as the party’s future. Christie is a Tea Party favorite for his bluntness, and Tuesday night he used the bully pulpit of the keynote address to position himself as, well, a bully. “The greatest lesson Mom ever taught me, though, was this one: she told me there would be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected,” Christie told the delegates. “She said to always pick being respected, that love without respect was always fleeting — but that respect could grow into real, lasting love. Now, of course, she was talking about women.”

In other words, better to be Tony Soprano than Jesus Christ.

In a sign that the party is already thinking about a 2016 campaign that isn’t about re-electing Mitt, Christie laid out a future for the party replete with references to the Founding Fathers, shared responsibilities and his own accomplishments. What Christie didn’t do, at least for the first 15 minutes of his speech, was mention the presumed nominee, which is usually the point of the keynote speech. The verdict from political pundits: “a primetime belly flop,” “off key,” and “disappointing.”

Perhaps the hardest task fell to Ann Romney, who had to deliver a speech that humanized her husband. (By comparison, solving the nation’s deficit problem would be a walk in the park.) Ann comes to the convention with a built-in reservoir of good will, as a breast cancer survivor and an MS patient. But she didn’t exactly knock it out of the park either. She used a lot of rhetoric to try to convince women that the party was on its side. Even a conservative flag-waver like Ramesh Ponnuru called the speech “clumsy pandering.” Ann’s role should have been to be (or at least appear) relentlessly apolitical and warm, and the Romney campaign squandered that opportunity by making her a mouthpiece for ham-fisted messages it wanted to deliver to women. At least she focused on Mitt, which is more than the other speakers did.

The party convention is supposed to be a highly scripted, relentlessly positive and politically sophisticated infomercial for the candidate. So far, the Republicans have delivered mixed messages that indicate that the party isn’t altogether behind the nominee, hasn’t settled on a message and can’t control the egomaniacs and splinter groups in its midst. If that’s a sign of what the fall campaign is going to be like, you might as well start programming your DVRs now to record Obama’s second inauguration.