Optimism fills hall as the GOP convention begins



TAMPA, Fla. -- Political optimism defied gloomy Gulf Coast skies Monday as Republicans prepared to hand Mitt Romney his slightly delayed presidential nomination.

As the gavel fell on perhaps the shortest national convention session in history, GOP officials across the city talked up their chances of electing their new ticket along with the congressional hopefuls further down the ballot.

House Speaker John Boehner, who months ago suggested to reporters that his new majority could be in jeopardy in November, insisted that rather than being forced to defend their control of the House, Republicans would be on offense across the country. In a separate appearance, Karl Rove, the architect of the last winning presidential re-election campaign, serenely predicted that the presidential race was Mr. Romney's to lose despite his current polling deficits in key battleground states.

Protesters at Pennsylvania GOP event

Protesters, some from Pittsburgh, attempted to disrupt the Pennsylvania delegation's breakfast on Tuesday morning. (Video by Steve Mellon; 8/28/2012)

House Speaker Boehner addresses Pennsylvania delegation

House Speaker John Boehner urges members of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., to work hard to elect Gov. Mitt Romney as president of the United States. (Video by Steve Mellon; 8/28/2012)

"We're in a strong position to keep our majority and frankly expand it," Mr. Boehner said. "Many of our incumbents are in better shape than I would have guessed. ... We're on offense, and I'm going to keep our team on offense throughout the election."

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Mr. Rove argued that in 1980, when Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter a one-term president, offered the closest recent historical analogy to this year's contest. "You can make a case that this could be like1980 ... [with] an incumbent challenged by circumstances and policies," Mr. Rove said.

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He noted that at the equivalent point in that contest, Mr. Carter was ahead of the Republican challenger, who won in a landslide.

While polls continue to find President Barack Obama with narrow leads in most battleground states, Mr. Rove argued at a morning briefing hosted by Politico that the fact that the president's leads collectively trail his winning margins in 2008 points to the incumbent's vulnerability.

Asked to list battleground states at the top of the GOP opportunities, Mr. Rover cited Wisconsin, the home of Mr. Romney's running-mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and Ohio. He also said that Florida was ripe for the GOP, and he cited Pennsylvania as an opportunity but placed it on his target roster.

At least for now, that assessment of Pennsylvania is belied by the actions of the two campaigns. While the two standard-bearers have both stumped in the state, neither is currently spending money on television in Pennsylvania. And the Obama campaign was quick to point to an NBC report that Americans for Prosperity, the major GOP super-PAC, appeared to have suspended its ad buys in the state.

Two statewide polls in recent days have found Mr. Obama with a nine-point lead in Pennsylvania, but Rob Gleason, the state Republican chairman, insisted Monday afternoon that his state remained in play.

"We're in the game no matter what the polls say," Mr. Gleason said. "Mitt Romney has not done anything in Pennsylvania so far advertising-wise. I'm heartened by the fact that here we sit ... and we haven't spent 10 cents in Pennsylvania. Some of the super-PACS have, but Romney himself hasn't. I'm feeling very optimistic."

He cited the GOP's near sweep of the state in 2010 as evidence of its continuing potential for the Republican ticket. But in an observation that seemed as much a message to the national campaign as an analysis of the race, he added, "We're not going to sell Mitt Romney to Pennsylvania; he has to sell himself. ... When he was over there in Irwin, I said, 'You need to come back here a lot. If you want to carry Pennsylvania you have to come.' "

At least on the congressional level, Pennsylvania appears certain to have a less pivotal role in the national political drama than in recent political cycles. The state House delegation saw a dramatic swing to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008. But in 2010, five Republicans seized former Democratic seats in the Tea Party-driven cycle that allowed the GOP to reclaim an overall national majority.

Leaders of the National Republican Congressional Committee echo Mr. Boehner's bullish view of their overall chances in the coming contests, but they cited only one Pennsylvania seat, Rep. Mark Critz's Johnstown-based district, as a prime target this year. Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, they identified the district, where Mr. Critz is being challenged by Keith Rothfus, as among their top 16 targets of opportunity across the nation.

That first-tier status was underscored by Mr. Rothfus' selection as one of the candidates who is scheduled to address the RNC gathering today, the first day of business after its storm-shortened schedule that lasted a matter of minutes.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum -- Mr. Romney's last real, if distant, rival for the GOP nomination -- also was slated to speak today, in a more prominent evening slot, but not one that will be part of the one hour of prime-time exposure that the major broadcast networks are devoting to the session.

The twin highlights of the 10-to-11 p.m. session will be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the convention keynote speaker, and Ann Romney, Mr. Romney's wife. Their two speeches are expected to display very different tones and aims. The feisty Mr. Christie is poised to unleash an aggressive attack on Mr. Obama's record. Mrs. Romney's role, on the other hand, is seen as the opening of an effort to reintroduce her husband to a wider audience with a portrayal of a human side to the former Massachusetts governor who has often been depicted, by Republican rivals as well as Democrats, as a cold, unfeeling businessman.

"The key thing for Mitt Romney, at the end of this convention, is that people say, 'I know something about him personally that I didn't know about him beforehand ... the personal side," Mr. Rove said.

Mr. Bohener offered a similar assessment.

"You can't really properly introduce yourself in the middle of a Republican primary [when] your opponents are tearing you apart," he said.

As Tropical Storm Isaac largely bypassed Tampa, the schedule of speakers seemed more secure. In the latest of what has become a regular series of briefings mixing meteorology with politics, Russ Schriefer, Mr. Romney's lead convention strategist, said organizers were now confident that the convention would be able to proceed on its abbreviated three-day schedule, although he acknowledged that the storm's continuing threat to the Gulf Coast could still force some adjustments.

Instead of the full session Monday, which had been programmed as a day when Mr. Romney would be formally nominated by the delegates, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called the convention to order in midafternoon in a hall filled with empty seats. He then almost immediately recessed the session until today, hoping that the storm that spared the convention site would not produce damage elsewhere that would lure the national focus away from the Republicans.

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Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292. First Published August 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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