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In choosing keynote speakers, U.S. parties find the medium is the message

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, speaks at a campaign event at a coal mine operated by the American Energy Corporation in Beallsville, Ohio.

ERIC THAYER/The New York Times

One is a cerebral 37-year-old mayor who represents the country's shifting demographics and a new generation of Hispanic leaders. The other is a scrappy governor who takes no guff as he leads the charge to rein in public-sector unions and shrink government.

In Julian Castro and Chris Christie, the two main U.S. political parties have selected keynote speakers for their upcoming conventions who almost perfectly encapsulate the message each is seeking to convey to voters as the countdown to the fall election begins.

The choice of Mr. Castro, a Harvard law graduate and current mayor of San Antonio, Tex., is illustrative of a Democratic bid to monopolize the Hispanic vote, showcase the party's inclusiveness and highlight the government's role in ensuring opportunity for all.

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In picking Mr. Christie to headline their convention, as Republicans did on Tuesday, the party seeks to cement its "fixer" brand. The New Jersey governor, 49, is a hero among the right for taking on his state's unions in a bid to repair public finances and keep taxes down.

By his own admission, Mr. Castro finds himself with the biggest shoes to fill. Barack Obama, then a little-known Illinois state senator, was the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention. Barely four years later, he was living in the White House.

Now, the President's path to re-election passes through several swing states in which turnout among Latino voters will be critical. Picking Mr. Castro as the first Hispanic to give the keynote address at a Democratic convention could help Mr. Obama in that regard.

"It's one more indicator of how important the Latino community is to the future of America, not just electorally but in every sense – economically, socially," Mr. Castro said after being picked to speak at the convention, which begins Sept. 4 in Charlotte, N.C.

A 2010 profile in The New York Times Magazine described Mr. Castro as "the post-Hispanic Hispanic politician." The label suggests a new generation of Latino leader who is not defined by ethnicity and can appeal to a broad swath of American voters.

As a self-confessed beneficiary of affirmative action, Mr. Castro also embodies a key theme of the Obama campaign – that every successful American has been helped by government along the way. Mr. Obama uses that argument on the campaign trail to justify his call for more federal investment in education, health care and infrastructure.

Just as Mr. Obama held up his own story as a demonstration of the "possibilities of this nation" in 2004, Mr. Castro offers another take on fulfilling the American Dream.

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Mr. Christie wears a far different hat among Republicans, whose convention kicks off Aug. 27 in Tampa. He is the party's no-nonsense reformer. Many top conservatives pushed him to run for the nomination. Mr. Christie's keynote address is a consolation prize for a group of party power brokers that nominee Mitt Romney needs to keep happy.

"I'll try to tell some very direct and hard truths to the people in the country about the trouble that we're in and the fact that fixing those problems is not going to be easy for any of them," Mr. Christie told USA Today on Tuesday. "The American people are ready to confront those problems head-on and endure some sacrifices."

With Mr. Romney's choice of budget hawk Paul Ryan as his running mate, the stage is set for a convention that dwells on the fiscal challenges facing the country. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who withdrew collective bargaining rights from public-sector unions in his state, is also being given a prime speaking slot.

The selection of Mr. Ryan disappointed Republicans who wanted Florida Senator Marco Rubio on the ticket in order to woo Hispanic voters. Mr. Romney sought to make up for that on Tuesday by choosing Mr. Rubio to introduce him at the convention.

Three other rising Hispanic Republicans will speak at the convention: New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, who was born in Calgary. But they will have supporting roles at best.

The sensation of the 2008 Republican convention, then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, has so far failed to snag a speaking slot this time. She joins former Romney rivals Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Herman Cain among those snubbed by the convention.

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Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., seems to be the biggest Democratic loser. Once mentioned as a no-brainer for the keynote, he is in party purgatory for slamming the Obama campaign's attacks on Mr. Romney's business record as "nauseating."

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More


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