Republicans Join the Battle

Tampa, Fla.

Two days in, I had no faith in this convention. The hurricane tore apart plans and affected everyone’s mood. Normal chaos became heightened anxiety. On the floor, the delegate seats had too much space between them, which removed the kind of animal density that speakers in big halls need. The weird, excessive security left the areas around the Forum and the Convention Center almost empty of people and traffic. It looked like the aftermath of a dirty bomb, when everyone had fled. A convention is supposed to be full of humans and hustle and bustle, and protesters, too, because this is America and protesters are part of the crazy zest of a great party convening.

America is always going over the top. We have gone over the top on security. Stop already. Life is risk. Be prudent, take precautions, but live.

Anyway, it took longer than usual for the gathering to find a rhythm. The first night’s addresses were fine but didn’t quite scour, as Abe Lincoln said of a speech that fell short. But the second night lifted everything up. Wednesday it became a real convention. All of a sudden there was joy, and fight.

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It started with Mike Huckabee. He is a performer, he knows how to do this, and he made the audience listen. But he is also a policy person and a veteran campaigner who knows the base. He addressed the Mormon issue without ever saying “the Mormon issue,” and he hit hard on cultural issues. President Obama, he said, is the only “self-professed evangelical” in the race, yet “he tells people of faith that they have to bow their knees to the god of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls health care. Friends . . . let me say it as clearly as possible, that the attack on my Catholic brothers and sisters is an attack on me.”

That was electric. Every speaker afterwards got to bounce off the energy Mr. Huckabee left in the room.

Condi Rice was a star. She took the role of accomplished and knowledgable public instructor, boiling down the conservative critique of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy. What are they upset about? That he’s not serious, that he doesn’t understand what America must be in the world. The great unanswered question now is where America stands. When the world doesn’t know, it becomes “a more chaotic and dangerous place.” Interestingly, she scored the president on international economic policy. We are “abandoning the playing field” on trade, “and it will come back to haunt us.”

In the media, her presence at the convention is seen as a comeback. But Ms. Rice is an iconic figure, and iconic figures don’t come back because they don’t leave. Her role at this convention was prominent. Good, she is an authentically inspiring figure.

New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez was a revelation. I’d never seen her speak. She came across as tough, funny, able, smart. She’s like the prosecutor in a show with a name like “CSI: Child Victims Unit”—the no-nonsense Latina who tells the detectives to make the call and get the perp. She did something Republicans love, telling the story of how she once went to lunch to hear some political guys out and realized at the end, to her shock, that she was a Republican. It was like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 2004 convention. He told of being new in America. He saw Richard Nixon talking about free enterprise and asked a friend, “What party is he?” On being told, he said, “Then I am a Republican.” The only line in 2004 that brought down the house.

Anyway, watch this woman. She’s a star, too.

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The most important speech Wednesday was Paul Ryan’s. America was meeting him. I won’t quote at length, since it’s all over the Internet and you already know the lines that scored—the college kid and the Obama poster, the elevator music. Great stuff.

But here’s what was important. Mr. Ryan started awkward, got his sea legs, settled down, and by the time he was finished he’d made Mr. Obama look tired and old. He made the administration sound over. He made it sound so yesterday.

The speech was solidly done—three acts, humor, and it all sounded true of him. It was serious, an indictment of the way things are and a declaration of hope.

A commentator of the left told me, afterward, that he thought it the most “ideological” convention speech he’d heard in decades, all that stuff about “central planners.” I said it seemed to me not like ideology but philosophy, that while central planner is a 20th-century phrase, what it conveys—that an elite professional governing class far away is more likely to wreak havoc than be constructive—is not only basic conservative thinking but straight out of the Federalist Papers. Mr. Ryan was not ideological. He was conservative.

And yet. He seemed very young up there. And the teleprompter forced him to shift his eyes from screen to screen and deliver the good line, plonkingly, to the center screen. The crowd loved him and conservatives love him, but he is going to have to work very hard to break through to America.

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Night three was good in different ways. The Friends of Mitt who showed up to speak for him painted a better picture of his personal virtues than has ever been painted. The Romney family film was beautiful and touching. Clint Eastwood was funny, endearing—”Oprah was crying”—and carries his own kind of cultural authority. “It’s time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem.” He was free-form, interesting—you didn’t quite know what was going to come next—strange and, in the end, kind of exhilarating. Talk about icons. The crowd yelling, “Make my day,” was one of the great convention moments, ever.

Mitt Romney’s speech? The success of the second night of the convention left people less nervous about the stakes. Nobody expected a great one. There was a broad feeling of, “Look, giving great speeches is not what Mitt does, he does other things.”

He had to achieve adequacy. He did.

It was a speech that seemed assembled by people who love pictures but not words. And that will limit a speech.

Coming down the aisle like a president at a State of the Union was meant to make you picture him as president. He began to speak at 10:36, a little late for some viewers in the East. It could not be accused of being an applause-line speech. He spoke compellingly of the centrality of faith in his life.

Mr. Romney always looks to me like a kindly, well-intentioned and intelligent man. That’s how he looked Thursday night. There are big policy differences between him and the president.

And so the battle is, on the Republican side, formally joined. Next week, the Democrats in Charlotte.

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A very smart Republican, a veteran and unromantic surveyor of the political scene, told me we are about to find out whether this year is 1976 or 1980—if what we have just witnessed is a harbinger of change, or the change itself.

We’ll know in 9½ weeks. You’re bored with politics? Kid, right now is when it gets interesting.