Analysis: Things we've learned at the Republican convention

TAMPA, Florida Thu Aug 30, 2012 7:08am EDT

Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan accepts the nomination as he addresses delegates during the third session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 29, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan accepts the nomination as he addresses delegates during the third session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 29, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

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TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Mitt Romney's campaign choreographed the Republican National Convention to sell voters on three ideas: that the party is unified behind Romney; that he is a qualified presidential candidate who's warmer than he seems, and that his running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, is ready to be one step from the presidency.

Ryan took his turn at trying to make the sale on Wednesday night in a convention speech that had Republican delegates roaring with approval. On Thursday, it's Romney's turn.

Whether the convention will give Romney a significant bounce in the polls over Democratic President Barack Obama is not yet clear.

But already this week, the convention has revealed a few other insights about the Republican Party:

DIVISIONS

**Despite shows of unity at the convention, the divisions in the party are deep.

The most obvious sign of discontent at the convention came on Tuesday, when about half of Maine's 24-member delegation walked out of a convention session to protest a move by party leaders to replace them because of alleged procedural violations.

The ousted delegates backed libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul; those who replaced them supported Romney.

Another dispute over a Romney-backed plan, aimed at making it more difficult for delegates to switch allegiances to presidential candidates, led some Paul supporters to shout, "Cheater! Cheater!" as Romney supporters chanted, "Please sit down! Please sit down!" and "USA! USA!"

So what's really behind all this?

Look back to the presidential primaries for a clue.

Romney, despite huge advantages in organization and fundraising, had trouble locking up the Republican nomination because many conservatives were - and remain - deeply suspicious of his moderate record as Massachusetts governor, particularly his previous support for a healthcare overhaul and abortion rights.

Paul never led polls in the primary race, but at various times Romney trailed conservatives Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as activists who are among the party's most loyal voters looked for an alternative to Romney.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

**These divisions aren't going away anytime soon.

For this election, Romney, 65, has formed an alliance with some of the brightest young conservatives in the Republican Party, including Ryan, 42; Florida Senator Marco Rubio, 41; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, 44, and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, 40.

But on the convention floor, many of the delegates are even younger, and have mixed feelings about Romney even if they were bound to vote for his nomination here.

They represent a new generation of Republicans who believe that the party - which has moved to the right in the last quarter-century - hasn't done so quickly enough.

They see new icons in Wisconsin's Walker, who backed a state measure that stripped most public workers of their collective bargaining rights and then survived a recall election backed by the workers' unions.

"A lot of people are upset" that the party isn't more conservative, said Travis Bryan, 31, of Pasadena, Texas. He is a Romney delegate but was not happy with the procedural moves against Paul's supporters at the convention.

Another Texas delegate, John Burroughs, said the effort to suppress Romney's opposition at the convention - which included having convention officials ignore vote totals that delegations announced for Paul or anyone other than Romney - "doesn't bode well for the party. It's an illusion that we have 100 percent unity."

2016

**This convention could be about 2016 as much as it is about 2012.

Several of the convention speakers could become presidential or vice presidential contenders in four years if Romney loses to Obama, and that seemed evident in their speeches.

Santorum, Haley and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were among those who dwelled on their own story before offering praise for Romney.

Christie, for example, did not mention Romney until the fifth page of his seven-page speech. Santorum, a bitter rival of Romney's during the primaries, mentioned Romney's name three times in his 14-minute speech.

Republicans and Democrats alike have described this election as a benchmark - a once-in-a-generation event that could set the course for American politics for decades.

The current makeup of the Republican Party's leadership suggests that after Romney - whether that's as soon as this year or as late as 2020, if he is elected president and serves the maximum two four-year terms - the flood gates will open to a new generation of Republican leadership.

In Tampa this week, that fact has been difficult to ignore.

"We're focused on this fall - for now," one Republican strategist said. "But yeah, part of the deal here is to position yourself for the future."

ABORTION

**Abortion was never going to be the primary issue of the 2012 campaign. But with Romney as the Republican nominee, don't expect it to come up much.

Romney wants his campaign to be about fixing the struggling economy, not the social issues that are so important to evangelical Christians and other social conservatives who are particularly well-represented among the convention delegates.

Abortion also is an issue on which some conservative Republicans are wary of Romney, because he supported abortion rights when he was Massachusetts governor. Today he says he opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or when the health or life of the pregnant woman is in danger.

That position is more in line with that of many conservative Republicans, but not quite so with the no-exceptions view held by many delegates.

In Tampa, Romney's priorities have won out, because it's his convention.

As a result, even convention speakers who typically make a point of targeting abortion - such as Santorum and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee - touched on the subject only briefly in their remarks here.

That helped Romney - and may have helped to tamp down a controversy over remarks about rape that a Republican congressman from Missouri made a few days before the convention.

COMMUNICATING

**Mitt Romney might not be the greatest communicator. But his wife, Ann, and his running mate, Ryan, showed in Tampa that they can play in the big leagues.

Ann Romney's touching tribute to her husband on Tuesday night was a boost for a candidate who has been called stiff and aloof on the campaign trail.

And in his speech to the convention on Wednesday, Ryan showed that years of explaining complex budgets in Capitol Hill hearings have helped make him a particularly good communicator.

Ryan didn't always stick to the facts; he suggested Obama was responsible for the closing of a General Motors plant in Ryan's hometown that actually closed in December 2008, during President George W. Bush's tenure.

But Ryan showed that he likely will be a formidable surrogate for Romney in the 10-week sprint to the November 6 election.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Jim Loney)

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