Lord Ashcroft's Republican Convention diary day four: Thursday
Throughout this week Lord Ashcroft has been submitting a diary from Tampa, Florida where the Republicans met to nominate Mitt Romney for the US Presidency.
The final night of the Convention, and the last big chance to introduce Mitt Romney to the nation. In advance of his speech, Olympians, members of the church of which he was pastor, and former colleagues vouched sturdily, and sometimes movingly, for the Governor's character and competence. Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples (in which Romney's company, Bain Capital, invested), said he was well qualified to control government spending: when he first told Mitt about his plan for a chain of office supply stores "he got really excited about the idea of saving a few cents on paper clips". Clint Eastwood was a popular choice as the surprise special guest. People think Hollywood types are all "left of Lenin", he said, but there were some Republicans too: "they just don't go round hotdoggin' it".
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, whom I had met a few months ago and briefed on the state of British politics, invited me to watch the acceptance speech from his skybox. It will soon be clear how far Romney's performance has gone to establishing himself in the public mind as something other than (as one insider put it) "John Kerry without the medals". Romney's best lines contrasted his own approach with that of his opponent: "President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. [Pause for prolonged laughter]. My promise is to help you and your family". Republican strategists anticipate only a small bounce in the polls, but expect the jobs figures out at the end of next week to neutralise whatever small gains Obama could expect from his own Convention.
One of the big differences between the American Conventions and our own party conferences is that all the action happens in the evening. The major speakers – Ann Romney, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney – have not taken the stage until 10pm or even later, so as to hit live prime time TV in as many time zones as they can. This makes sense but it also makes for late nights, since the post-Convention parties only get started once the action on the floor is over. After the Ryan speech I went along to the Kid Rock party. You will all know who Kid Rock is, of course. He wrote the GOP's campaign song, 'Born Free'.
Another feature (along with the scale, and the spectacle, and the headgear, and the – by British standards – syrupy speeches by candidates' spouses), that sets the American convention apart is the gigantic autocue screen that faces the stage from across the arena. This means that everyone in the crowd knows what the speaker is going to say before he says it. This is disconcerting at first but soon becomes quite captivating. It is hard to stop oneself orating along.
Public approval of Congress is down to 11%, "which basically means it is down to paid staffers and immediate family", says Senator John McCain. What baffles him is why the number is so high: "I'd like to ask the 11% what they like about us. This is the least productive Congress since 1947… so I don't know what the hell they were doing in 1947".
"I'm a big tweeter", McCain told us proudly. Expounding his view that the desire to move towards democracy reaches well beyond the Middle East and North Africa, he recently teased President Putin by tweeting: "Dear Vlad – the Arab Spring is coming to a neighbourhood near you". He took the barrage of replies to Congressional staff for translation. "I never knew there was so much foul language in the Russian vocabulary".
Useful parting advice from Trygve Olson, a top Republican consultant with long experience of presidential campaigns, on how to tell who is winning in the final few weeks. Though there is "little opportunity to shift the dynamic, unless someone screws up", there are signs to read. If, after the debates, Obama spends a lot of time in Michigan or Wisconsin, things are going badly for him. If Romney appears often in North Carolina, things are moving towards Obama. If both candidates are mostly in Virginia, Ohio, Iowa and Nevada, it is very close. If either side says they are confident, it is too close to call. If one side says they are enjoying a surge, it means they are going to lose.