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Columns / Gwen's Take

5 Things to Watch For in Tampa

photo of Gwen Ifill
August 28, 2012

Florida politics has always been its own special fun. Long before the election year ground to a shocking legal halt in the wake of the disputed 2000 election, it was the home of "Walkin’ Lawton" Chiles -- the guy who ran for governor by walking across the state; Terri Schiavo, whose life-support drama turned into a national flash point; and Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy whose residency dispute single-handedly revived the Cold War.

So Tropical Storm Isaac should be a piece of cake.

I gave a series of interviews this week to talk about PBS's convention coverage, which will include two Washington Week town halls and seven nights of PBS NewsHour special coverage from the convention halls in Tampa and Charlotte.


While the broadcast networks flee, offering a scant three hours of coverage from each city, we'll be there all day, every day. The question every interviewer asked me: Why?

They are polite when they ask this, but the questions are posed in that tone of voice usually reserved for addled uncles. I liked them anyway.

Q: Aren't these conventions just scripted political reality shows?

A: Why, yes, they are. And they have been for longer than you think. It's been decades since the party nominee was actually selected at the party convention. If you remember the last time that happened, you are probably thinking in black and white. But just because there's a script doesn't mean what you are seeing is not true.

Q: Then why should we care?

A: The big speeches are nice, but the thing I like best about conventions is that they can give you a direct line into what drives America's politics. The delegates who put on the funny hats, wave the signs, and cheer the balloon drops are as handy a cross section as we are likely to find of our national political psyche. Ask these delegates what motivates them, what messages they are hearing, and how they think government should work, and you can learn a lot.

 Q: Whom should we watch?

A: The first time I met President Obama, I was interviewing him for The NewsHour, standing on the podium for an interview as the confetti fell after his breakthrough 2004 convention speech. This is where the parties showcase their rising stars and the people who can most eloquently articulate their political ethos. Mario Cuomo, Jesse Jackson,  and Ann Richards captured the Democrats' imagination from that spot. Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin, and even Pat Buchanan did the same for the Republicans.

Q: Will there be surprises?

A: Perhaps. Rep. Paul of Texas, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination and actually accumulated a cache of wildly enthusiastic delegates, is not likely to create headaches for Romney in Tampa, but his folks will still be looking to stir up a fuss somewhere.

In Charlotte, it's less clear. Renominating an incumbent is a more straightforward task. Yet Democrats can be an unruly bunch, and labor leaders remain distinctly unhappy that the party chose to hold its meeting in a non-union town.

Plus, keep in mind that Florida Gov. Rick Scott and North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue are both stunningly unpopular in their home states. How quickly will Scott's Republicans and Perdue's Democrats usher them on and off the stage?

Q: And, finally, what's the point?

A: Conventions set the stage for our quadrennial embrace of the democracy that makes us uniquely American. They are crazily patriotic and unbearably optimistic in a way that gives us a brief respite from our increasingly caustic national political arguments.

They also set the stage for a fall campaign that truly counts. Voters roused from the white noise of the primaries and a sluggish summer can now snap to. Who is this fella Romney? Why should we rehire a president when the economy is so sluggish? What are their character traits? Are the vice presidential nominees equipped to take over the job at a moment's notice? Do we like their wives?

By the time the conventions end, anyone paying attention will have an introductory lesson under their belts, enough to prepare them for the fall's marquee candidate debates.

So, come on. Watch. Everything else is in reruns anyway.

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