TAMPA -- Viewed and heard from the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, her delivery was as clipped and formal as when she was being grilled by the 9/11 commission in 2004 over the U.S. failure to prevent the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The same almost-brittle delivery once struck fear in the hearts of traumatized Americans, as when in 2002 she warned of Saddam Hussein's military ambitions in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, "There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't what the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
But on Wednesday night in Florida, the energy that greeted former George W. Bush National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was all 2012. Taking the podium to wildly enthusiastic applause and cries of "We love you, Condi!" Rice delivered a resoundingly well-received speech that touched professorially on an array of contemporary foreign-policy issues and enough compassionate conservative causes to provoke nostalgia for the presidency of a man who left office with a 22 percent approval rating.
Looking only slightly older than when she left the national stage, she stood before a sort of electronic scrap-booking board on the Republican National Convention stage that flashed an array of images putting her in the middle of the story of the Bush years. Rumsfeld turning toward her. Rice seated with her heeled foot extended outward, a group of male shoes in the shot. President Bush turning toward her. Rice and Colin Powell, striding side by side.
Before she spoke, the Drudge Report, which earlier this year posted quickly debunked rumors that she was on Mitt Romney's vice presidential short list, published a draft of her remarks. The Romney camp did not send out advance speech excerpts for her, perhaps to help build anticipation for her speech (you can read the prepared for delivery version here).
In her speech, Rice criticized President Obama more gently than many who have trod the stage this week, saying that the Arab Spring proves that the "desire for freedom is indeed universal" but that the promise of the unprisings is "engulfed in uncertainty" and America's allies do not know where the country stands.
"'Where does America stand?'" Rice asked. "You see, when friends or foes alike do not know the answer to that question -- unambiguously and clearly -- the world is likely to be a more dangerous and a chaotic place." Warning against malign powers who would seek to fill a leadership vacuum abroad, she asserted, "Peace really does come through strength" and said that America's might would be "safe in Mitt Romney's hands."
But it was her remarks on her own personal story and on the need for better K-12 education for minority children -- which she called "the civil-rights struggle of our day" that she drew the greatest response from the audience, suggesting that she is no longer seen just as a foreign-policy intellectual and high-stature former government official but as a powerfully symbolic figure. Her personal successes and race give her an unusual authority within a party starved for black leaders to contrast with Obama and values-laden personal narratives to contrast against programs Republicans would cut.
Rice said earlier today she would not consider a position in a Romney administration. But even if she doesn't, it's clear from tonight that her place in the Romney-Ryan Republican Party is assured.