Every party has its black sheep. But it is striking, with Republicans gathered in Tampa for their pre-election convention, just how many the GOP has — including two former presidents, a former Speaker of the House and an overly quaffed reality-TV star — and how eager presidential nominee Mitt Romney is to keep them out of the spotlight
J. Scott Applewhite
On Tuesday morning, Newt Gingrich – former Speaker of the House, and more recently, a thorn in Mr. Romney’s side as a rival for the presidential nomination – could be found in nearby Clearwater, Fla., playing professor for about 40 people in the conference room of an airport hotel.
“Newt University” as he calls it, isn’t much, but it’s the platform that Mr. Gingrich has been allotted this week. (At the last minute, it was announced he would also get a brief speaking slot on Thursday evening, well before the star attractions.) At a different hotel each of the convention’s four days, he and various guests (Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been the most high-profile one so far) hold forth on why conservatives need to reclaim power and how they can achieve it.
It’s a far cry from Mr. Gingrich’s heyday leading the Republicans to a congressional majority in the mid-nineties, or the fleeting momentum that led him to win three states in this year’s primaries. But the manner in which it all crashed and burned, with vicious broadsides at Mr. Romney and a much-mocked promise to build a moon colony, clearly convinced organizers that he was best kept at some distance from the main event.
Mr. Gingrich is gamely trying to present “Newt University” as a multiplatform venture that will include an online academy. Pressed after Tuesday’s class if he’d given thought to what form that would take exactly, he offered a terse “no” before pointing to an aide he said was mostly behind the project, and then fled the room.
The Tea Party darling and member of Congress from Minnesota was in Tampa on Sunday but has been relegated to an unofficial role. Instead of addressing thousands of delegates and journalists at the convention venue, she spoke at a local church.
As always, the one-time contender for the Republican nomination seems to relish controversy. Even fellow Republicans rebuked her recently after she called for a probe into one of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s closest aides, alleging the aide’s family was somehow linked to Islamic extremism.
During her speech at the church on Sunday, Ms. Bachmann referenced the impending arrival of Tropical Storm Isaac in Florida. “We’re looking at a political hurricane in this country,” she said. “We are looking at a spiritual hurricane in our land.”
It wasn’t the first time Ms. Bachmann had tied severe weather to politics. A year ago she suggested that Hurricane Irene, which left 65 dead in its wake in 2011, was an act of God brought on by gridlock in Washington, D.C. Her spokesman later backtracked, saying the statement was a joke.
© Handout . / Reuters
George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush
The most accomplished no-shows this week – the only two living Republican presidents – are something of a special case.
If they were here, George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, would have to be given prominent places. Both, though, indicated well in advance that they would give the convention a miss. And unlike with other absences, most delegates don’t seem to wish it were otherwise.
George W. exited four years ago as one of the most unpopular presidents in U.S. history, and there is little reason to believe he’d be an asset to attract voters now. And in a party that has shifted significantly to the right, there’s little nostalgia for administrations that famously raised taxes after promising not to do so, or allowed spending to grow wildly under their watch.
Asked on Tuesday about the no-show of the younger Mr. Bush, former South Carolina State Speaker David Wilkins, a personal friend under whom he served as ambassador to Canada, attributed it to the former president being a “class act” who didn’t want to distract from Mr. Romney’s message.
George W.'s nephew, Jeb Bush, Jr., was a little more cryptic. Asked whether Mr. Bush would be tuning in at home this week, he replied: “My uncle is probably watching with one eye closed.”
Four years ago, one person dominated the Republican National Convention. She electrified the crowd with a combative speech, overshadowed her running mate, and introduced new phrases to the political lexicon (“hope-y, change-y”). Where is the Republicans’ mama grizzly? On Monday the former Alaska governor was in Arizona, stumping for a Congressional candidate there. Her attention-grabbing persona and relative inability to stay on message make her a potential liability at an event devoted to Mitt Romney. In a statement earlier this month, Ms. Palin put a positive spin on not being invited. “This year is a good opportunity for other voices to speak at the convention and I’m excited to hear them,” she said.
For a no-show, Ms. Palin remains the subject of intense speculation in Tampa. Rumours are flying that she could be the surprise speaker for a still-to-be-announced slot on Thursday night (highly unlikely). And two residents of Davis Island, just south of downtown, assured me that Ms. Palin had rented an 8,500-square-foot house right on the water. One even claimed that she had glimpsed Ms. Palin.
I rang the doorbell and a blond woman in athletic gear answered the door. Ms. Palin wasn’t there, hadn’t been there, and wasn’t coming, she said.
Donald Trump claims to have turned down an invitation to speak at the convention. But it seems highly improbable the entrepreneur, reality-TV host and increasingly-loose cannon would have been given anything resembling a high-profile slot.
Mr. Trump’s various forays into Republican politics, including promises to deliver a “big surprise” this week, which he did not follow through on, seem to be more about self-promotion than about helping the party win. And, as evidenced this week by a Tweet taking aim at liberal media personality Ariana Huffington – he called her “unattractive both inside and out” and said he understands “why her husband left her for another man” – he has a proclivity for personal attacks that can make even political veterans wince.
The best reason to keep him at a safe distance is that Mr. Trump has emerged as one of the most prominent of the “birthers,” and continues to cast doubt on whether President Barack Obama was really born in the United States.
Mr. Romney, who has said previously that there is no question where Mr. Obama was born, recently took heat for joking while in Michigan (where he was born) that nobody has ever asked to see his birth certificate. One can only imagine the firestorm had he been given a platform to raise that issue more seriously.