In Tampa, a Fractious Party Strives to Present a Unified Front

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Fang Zhe / Xinhua /

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaks at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Florida on Aug. 27, 2012


This is the love-in Mitt Romney never had. Mere minutes elapsed between the moment Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus gaveled the GOP convention open and its weather-driven adjournment until Tuesday. It was enough to see how the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the hulking sports arena hosting this week’s festivities, has been transformed into a shrine to a candidate who won his party’s presidential nomination without ever capturing its heart. A jumbo video screen interspersed clips of Romney’s campaign kickoff, his coif blowing in the New Hampshire breeze, with a montage of diverse children whose freedom he has pledged to secure. Signs festooned the convention floor and surrounding warren of concrete hallways. Attendees crammed into a store stacked with Romney-Ryan swag, from T-shirts and pins to iPhone cases emblazoned with the ticket’s slogans.

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But if you look past the pageantry, you can see signs of the ideological divisions that have roiled the Republican Party during the past 3½ years. Small groups of delegates brandished signs promoting Ron Paul, Romney’s onetime rival for the nomination; others advertised support for Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate nominee whose remarks about “legitimate rape” spurred the party establishment to disavow his candidacy. As Republicans gather here to formally nominate Romney in a show of party harmony, the rifts from a messy primary season remain. “The intention is to present a unified party,” says John Burroughs, an electrical engineer from Dallas who supports Paul. The reality is a little different.

The thumpings Republicans received in 2006 and 2008 have pulled the party to the right, sometimes pitting its factions against one another in ideological battles over the course it should pursue in the post–George W. Bush era. As several delegates noted, such realignments often happen when a party gets cast out of power. Even skeptics like the Paulites have pledged to put aside their quarrels with Romney at the ballot box — though some will do so grudgingly — in support of shared principles like shrinking government, slashing taxes and federal spending, and curbing regulations they believe have stifled economic growth.

But in a party that has been plagued by internecine warfare, one of the key goals of this week’s political stagecraft is to present a united front that will give Romney a winner’s aura for the sliver of swing voters who may decide the race. Veterans of the party establishment say the primary squabbling was natural, even healthy, but now is the time to close ranks around the former Massachusetts governor. “Even though we’ve had our disagreements, I think we’re going to come out of this convention very united,” says Saul Anuzis, an RNC committee member from Michigan who has attended the annual convention since 1980. “We’re as united as we’ve been.”

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No one has done more to heal the fissures of the past few years than the party’s common opponent. “Obama is a galvanizing force,” says Brian O’Conner, a self-described Tea Party adherent who owns a small upholstery business in Virginia’s 5th District. “He really helps bring us together.” Several delegates noted that Romney’s decision to select Paul Ryan, a revered figure in conservative circles, “was a great pick to unify the base,” says Jacob Ventura, a delegate from Massachusetts.

And while Romney may not be beloved by the party faithful, his emergence from a crowded primary field speaks to the party’s thirst for a candidate capable of ousting Barack Obama. That comforts party brass who fret that the GOP has lurched away from its roots as a center-right party and could suffer consequences at the ballot box as a result. “The selection of Romney, to me, shows unity,” says Richard Magee, the mayor of Glendale, Mo., and a Romney delegate. “He was vulnerable on Obamacare and expressed pro-choice sentiments at one time. A lot of people ignored that in favor of electability.”

As some of the GOP’s old hands note, both political parties routinely grapple with noisy dissenters. “I don’t think the situation is that dissimilar from what we’ve had at past conventions,” says John Hager, a former Virginia lieutenant governor who is attending his eighth convention. “You’re always going to have minority elements and people who have differing views. We don’t agree on everything. That’s part of the process.” The key, Hager says, is allowing rebels to air their grievances before coalescing behind the nominee. “Inclusion, not exclusion,” he says.

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And yet, interviews with delegates faithful to Paul — who was denied a speaking slot after declining to issue a full-throated endorsement of Romney — offer a window into how they feel marginalized by a party establishment that has sought to harness their fervor while resisting some of their key ideas in the party platform. At meetings preceding the convention, party bigwigs jammed through rule changes designed to give the nominee broader leeway to pick delegates, effectively limiting the clout of insurgent campaigns. Paul devotees interpreted the change as an attempt to consolidate power and freeze out the new, youthful grassroots activists trying to alter the party’s trajectory. Some restive supporters are plotting a floor fight on Tuesday in protest.

Establishment Republicans “are not letting us be heard,” says Kimlinh Bui, 36, a legal assistant from Edina, Minn., who backs Paul but says she will vote for Romney, despite bristling at the way convention organizers have promoted a “show of unity” for the benefit of the press and voters watching at home. “It would strengthen the party to admit there are factions,” she says. “The fact that we can disagree but work together would make the party stronger. To carry on the fiction that we’re all united is unrealistic.” Adds Bui: “If we can’t convince each other that Mitt Romney is the solution, how are we going to convince Democrats and independents?”

As the party’s grandees know, there’s only one surefire way to stop the squabbling, and that’s to win. A Romney victory on Nov. 6 would go a long way toward remaking the party in his image. And if he loses … well, the recriminations of the past few years will be nothing compared to what comes next.

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