How a Nominating Convention Is Like a Wedding

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No one will want to sit next to the crazy uncle, there will be too many speeches, and the hosts may embarrass themselves. So, how do you plan this thing?

At the 2008 Republican convention. (Reuters)

Pity the organizers of the Democratic and Republican conventions this year. The host governors -- Bev Perdue in North Carolina and Rick Scott in Florida -- happen to be two of the least popular state executives in the country. But geographic protocols demand that they address the convention hall. What to do?

The chosen few devising the lineup for a party's nominating convention are not unlike wedding planners drawing up the seating chart for a dysfunctional family. There are egos to be stroked, aesthetics to consider, and dramas to be avoided. Even the uncle no one can stand -- Donald Trump? -- has to sit somewhere.

And just like the bride and groom forced to winnow down their guest lists, convention organizers are faced with limited time slots, especially during prime time, when coveted undecided voters may be watching. Political operatives view these fence-sitters like squirrels, prone to being easily startled by the sudden movements and high-pitched rhetoric of, say, Republican firebrands such as former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Rep. Allen West of Florida, and erstwhile presidential candidate Ron Paul. Building the ideal lineup of speakers over several nights is based on a complicated formula that aims to boost favorable views of the nominee and the party's brand.

"There's a story you want to tell, a picture you want to paint," said Republican consultant Ed Goeas, who helped coordinate the 2008 convention, giving an artist's rendition of a baldly political process. "You frame it thematically for that night and then you start looking at the brush strokes. All of it has to fit together to make that picture."

The Republican Party at least partly defused questions over Scott's role at its convention in Tampa by including him on Monday in an initial list of "headliners." Media outlets have already picked up on the tension between a state party trumpeting the governor's economic progress and a GOP nominee conveying a much gloomier picture of the economy. By announcing Scott's presence in the lineup, the GOP may have headed off more speculation about conflict between the two camps. (It goes without saying that if you're a convention organizer or a wedding planner, conflict is bad.)

"But they didn't say when he's going to speak. It could be for five minutes at 5:35 a.m. Eastern Time,'' noted Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown, whose latest survey found that 52 percent of Florida voters disapprove of Scott's performance. "Just because you're speaking doesn't mean anybody is listening."

Perdue's disapproval rating is even worse -- 59 percent according to a June survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm in Raleigh. Pegged as the most vulnerable Democratic governor in the country, Perdue announced back in January that she would not seek reelection. A convention official asked about her role said: "In keeping with convention tradition, Gov. Perdue will speak and deliver the welcome."

"It won't be prime time," quipped Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who helped orchestrate the 2004 convention. (He described his role this way: "I got to make choices that made people unhappy. Thankfully, I usually wasn't the one who had to tell them.")

As television networks have cut back on their coverage of what are essentially balloon-dropping parties with little news value, convention organizers have become even more disciplined about their choices. Once you schedule the keynote speaker, the running mate, the nominee's spouse, and the nominee, there's not much time left.

One option for obligatory invites with popularity deficiencies: the speech via satellite video. That's how former President Jimmy Carter -- frequently invoked by Obama critics in an unfavorable comparison -- will address the Democratic convention, officials announced Tuesday. The video feed means Carter won't be able to make a faux paus like he did at the 2008 convention, when he said Republican nominee John McCain was "milking every possible drop of advantage'' from his imprisonment during the Vietnam War.

History shows the convention lineup can make a difference. Pat Buchanan's fiery speech at the 1992 Republican convention set a menacing tone for the culture wars. The 1980 and 1984 Democratic conventions are remembered most for the rousing speeches given by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, respectively.

And of course, a fresh-faced Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois named Barack Obama made an indelible impression at the 2004 convention.

In 2012, the tea party presents the GOP with its biggest opportunity -- and its biggest pitfall. Movement leaders like Palin, West, and Paul are great at rousing crowds. They make good television. But their powers of persuasion with moderate voters (think squirrels!) are suspect.

Palin hasn't said whether she's planning to attend, though RNC Chairman Reince Priebus made an obvious gesture on Fox News on Monday by saying he'd like her to speak. The former Alaska governor is currently on a hot endorsement streak, having picked five winning GOP candidates this year. And who could forget her line from the 2008 convention, about the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?

"The not-so-little secret is that the 800-pound gorilla in the room at the Republican convention is the tea party, and Sarah Palin is as much a leader of that movement as anybody else," said conservative strategist Keith Appell. "Given how well her last convention speech went, it would only help the Romney campaign immensely to involve her at the convention if for no other reason than she will rhetorically beat the living daylights out of Barack Obama."

Like Palin, Ron Paul has a cult following -- and a tendency for straying from the party's carefully scripted playbook. The libertarian congressman's antiwar and pro-drug legalization views aren't what the GOP wants to bring into the American living room, but he makes a persuasive case against government overspending.

Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, made the cut in the second list of speakers released on Tuesday. A spokesman for Ron Paul, Jesse Benton, said he "can't say too much" about the elder Paul's schedule. In fact, he said nothing.

"Sorry, we're keeping the cards close to the vest," Benton wrote in an e-mail. "All I can say is that our relationship with the RNC [has] been very respectful and constructive."

Sounds just like a family heart-to-heart.

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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