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Republican Convention Looks For A Star

Romney is at its center, but delegates are eager to hear from Rubio, Ryan, and other younger Republicans. Mitt is likable enough.

JEWEL SAMAD / Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. — Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s biggest applause line Tuesday came at the beginning of his speech: “I’m Scott Walker.” By the time, a few minutes later, he had begun making the case for the Republican nominee, the applause, still warm, was notably quieter.

“We need someone to turn things around in America,” Walker told a crowd in Tampa that wasn’t going to argue with that premise. “That leader is Governor Mitt Romney.”

Republicans in Tampa are quick to insist that the party has united around Mitt Romney and that’s true — to a point. Key factions and their leaders, social conservatives, economic conservatives, have come around to the notion that they will be happy with a Romney presidency, thrilled perhaps with the fiscal and economic policies of a Romney-Ryan presidency. But the names that light them up are those of the next generation of Republican stars, the deep bench of senators and, in particular, governors who represent the party’s immediate future, if not quite its present.

“Governors who have tackled tough issues and demonstrated they can get things done, even in tough circumstances,” said Glenn Hamer, a delegate from Arizona, who was standing beside a Romney sign overlaid with the autograph of Governor Jan Brewer. Christie, in particular, is”a source of strength for Republicans,” he said.

Indeed a day spent in and around the Tampa Bay Times Forum reveals that while the party has united, in a general sort of way, around the nominee, that’s a rather loose measure. Party activists find Romney satisfactory. They’re pleased he’ll be speaking at the convention. But there’s no mistaking him for the hottest ticket at what is, after all, supposed to be his show.

On the convention floor Tuesday, where “MITT!” signs littered the carpet and chairs, the presidential nominee’s name was seen, but not heard. When the name “Romney” was uttered with excitement, “Ann” usually preceded it, and when she appeared on stage on Tuesday, she unquestionably stole the show.

If anything, she benefitted from low expectations. Delegates spent the day in eager anticipation of Christie, while other young stars — notably Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who appeared on all three morning shows Wednesday — dominated the airwaves.

Conventions can help make stars, a opportunity of which this one’s organizers are intensely aware, and at times wary. “You’re not going to be Obama 2004,” said one Republican operative, referring to the electrifying speech that sent the current president a into the stratosphere — but did not make Senator John Kerry president.

The convention was supposed to “humanize” Romney, the oddly wooden word constantly used to describe the Republicans’ relatively late effort to introduce a little-known and personally rather unpopular candidate to Americans. But while Ann Romney’s speech helped make his personal life seem far more ordinary than it had been, the candidate has also made clear that he will not resist the media cycle’s endless demands for more, and will resist attempts “to personalize me like I’m a piece of meat.” (An odd metaphor, some noticed: personalized meat sounds more like science fiction than politics.)

And with Romney so resistant to connection, the convention has looked elsewhere for an emotional core. Delegates, meanwhile, say they’re content with their stolid nominee.

Bo Palacios, one of nine delegates from the Northern Mariana Islands was among those who said he was particularly enthused to hear New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speak.

“I think these speakers are exciting to hear, but I don’t think they necessarily overshadow Romney,” Palacios added. “They’re not our nominee.”

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