TAMPA, Florida — The fact that Condoleezza Rice earned so many standing ovations during her speech at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night wasn’t necessarily surprising: After all, the hall full of devoted partisans has been quick to its feet all week.
What made Rice’s case unique was that she managed to do it without saying the words, “You did build that” — and without even mentioning President Obama’s name.
Instead, the speech that left Republicans here in awe — and prompted renewed speculation about the former Secretary of State’s political future — was one that embodied a big-tent, cross-time-zone version of the GOP, and left an impression not just on the delegates on the floor, but on the stragglers in the halls outside.
“She’s incredible,” gushed Andrea Smiley, a software product specialist from Rhode Island, who came to the convention with her husband. “Where she came from and what she’s achieved is just amazing. I don’t know what else to say.”
Smiley described herself “on the fringe of political interest; I’m only involved because my husband is involved.” Still, she saw something in Rice that moved her: “I hope she does run for something. I have a lot of respect for her, and I’d like to see her have a role in the party again.”
The sentiment was echoed by Denise Furey, a financial analyst from Philadelphia, who said of the speech, “It was awesome. It’s probably good that [Gov. Susana] Martinez was between her and Paul Ryan because she would have upstaged him.”
As the TVs outside the convention hall filled with Ryan’s face, Furey hastily added, “He’s doing good, too.”
Rice, who appeared to deliver her speech without the help of a teleprompter, devoted much of her address to big-picture themes like American leadership (“You cannot lead from behind”), and fiscal responsibility (“When a nation loses control of its finances, it eventually loses control of its destiny.”)
But the most rousing lines had nothing to do with policy — and definitely not the hawkish foreign policy she shaped and defended as a member of the Bush administration — but rather her own personal narrative. And perhaps it was telling that the loudest, longest applause she got came when she mentioned the idea of her running for president.
“And on a personal note,” Rice said toward the end, “A little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham, the segregated city of the South where her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant. But they have her absolutely convinced that even if she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, she can be President of the United States if she wanted to be — and she becomes Secretary of State.”
As the crowd inside the convention center lept to their feet, the Twittersphere exploded with praise and speculation about Rice’s suddenly rising star.
Meanwhile, back outside the hall, mingling Republicans — especially women — talked about their hopes and dreams for Rice.
Melissa Gray, a chief-of-staff for a Maryland state legislator, said she was “thrilled” when, earlier this summer, the Drudge Report fueled speculation that Rice was on Mitt Romney’s veepstakes “shortlist.”
“I understand why she was not picked, but I hope she can get something, maybe even Secretary of State again.”
Gray’s friend, Denise Lovelady, said she’d read several books written by Bush administration officials, and the portrait of Rice that emerged was one of a tough, brilliant woman who masterfully navigated the shoals of male egos in the White House.
“There were a lot of strong men, and she was able to handle them,” Lovelady said.
Gray chimed in, “I loved to see her sitting next to Mitt last night.”
“Yeah, I saw that, wasn’t that great?” Lovelady responded.
Gray nodded eagerly: “I hope that means something.”