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Opening Night at the RNC

After too many warm-up acts, Ann Romney and Chris Christie take the stage

Yair Rosenberg
August 29, 2012
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie takes the stage to deliver the keynote address during the Republican National Convention on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie takes the stage to deliver the keynote address during the Republican National Convention on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Modern political conventions are much like rock concerts. They come complete with jumbotrons, shifting stage scenery, mood lighting, and dancing in the aisles. Structurally, there is the main event, which is preceded by far, far too many warm-up acts. To enjoy what you came for, you have to sit through a lot of stuff for which you didn’t, and watch newbie performers—in this case, aspiring politicians rather than wannabe musicians—vie for your attention in an awkward attempt to move up the ladder before the real stars come out.

There were a lot of amateurs tonight at the RNC, but thankfully, there were also a few standouts.

The much anticipated speech of Utah Mayor Mia Love did not disappoint the enthusiastic throng here at the Tampa Times Forum. While she didn’t make reference to her Mormon faith—which for the moment remains the elephant in the convention hall—the daughter of Haitian immigrants did offer a stirring rendition of American aspiration:

[T]he American dream is not just my story, and it is not just your story, it is our story. It is a story of human struggle—of standing up and striving for more. It’s been told for over 200 years with small steps and giant leaps: from a woman on a bus to a man with a dream, from the bravery of the greatest generation to the entrepreneurs of today.

As the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf put it, to that point, she was the only person on stage “who actually sounded like she believed what she was saying.” (Even if she did crib “from a woman on a bus to a man with a dream” from Brad Paisley’s country anthem “Welcome to the Future.”) One objective measure of Love’s success: Before her 7:40pm speech, she had 8,450 Twitter followers; as of this writing, she has 10,250 and climbing.

But the enthusiasm engendered by Love still paled in comparison to the electric reception for the penultimate speaker of the evening, Ann Romney. During a presidential campaign in which her husband has often appeared cold and distant to outside observers, Ann has served ably as Mitt’s emotional surrogate—the beating heart of what many have criticized as a heartless campaign. She has talked openly about her struggles with breast cancer and Multiple Sclerosis and in the process humanized her husband. Judging by the audience’s reception, Ann played that role masterfully tonight. “I can only stand here tonight, as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an American, and make you this solemn commitment: This man will not fail,” she promised. The rapturous applause from the attendees at her speech’s conclusion went up to 11 when Mitt Romney made his first appearance of the convention to meet Ann on stage.

The lights were immediately dimmed and the keynote speaker—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—was introduced with a punchy political trailer comprised of some of his best sound-bites. A combative orator not known to mince words, Christie rose to prominence partly through his pragmatic conservative policymaking in the Garden State, but also viral YouTube clips of his town halls, where he would frequently demolish journalists, union officials, and others who had the temerity to challenge his political positions.

Aware of the gravity of the RNC stage, as well as the fact that his speech was being covered alongside Hurricane Isaac, Christie struck a more somber note with his keynote address. He called for Americans to share in the sacrifice that would be necessary to preserve the country’s safety net and economic dynamism for future generations. He condemned Democratic politicians for “say[ing] ‘yes’ instead of ‘no,’ when ‘no’ is what is required.” And he bluntly accused President Obama of shirking these difficult choices: “You see Mr. President, real leaders don’t follow polls. Real leaders change polls.”

It wasn’t Christie’s best—one couldn’t help but wonder if the speech would have been more effective if Christie had some hecklers to dress down in the middle—but it built to a potent crescendo, with Christie literally calling the entire convention hall to its feet. “If you’re willing to stand up with me for America’s future, I will stand up with you,” he said, as everyone—including Mitt Romney himself—rose from their seats. In a way, this capable but subdued performance should help Romney, who many worried would be overshadowed by the much more popular Christie.

Tomorrow, we’ll see how vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan handles the spotlight.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.