I hadn’t been to a Republican convention since the Reagan days in 1984. Back then the whole experience seemed somehow smaller and more intimate. Not that thousands of people crowding into an arena can be intimate, but you know what I mean. I had been invited to be a guest in ‘84 because at the time I was appearing on the show “Dallas” and the PR folks thought it might make the Republicans seem a little more “hip” if a few Hollywood types showed up. Of course I was awed by the spectacle and thrilled to be a part of Ronald Reagan’s re-election party. I absorbed everything that I could and came away with an image of the party as being pretty much what most people thought of Republicans, that they were WASP’s.
Well, let me be the first to tell you, that image has changed. As I made my way through last week in Tampa, first dodging Hurricane Issac, then dodging Occupy Wall Street and Code Pink, I really made it a point to look around and see what 2012’s Republican Party was all about.
If anyone has been to a convention you know that you have to have the patience of a saint. With the massive street closures, roadblocks and endless lines of traffic, you have to allow yourself hours just to get close to the arena! After that the security checks begin which seem to confront you every 50 feet. Security was everywhere. Police, SWAT teams, officers on horseback, National Guard, Secret Service. I don’t think I have seen this much of a presence outside of a war zone! It certainly was different back in ’84.
Standing in line however, gave me the opportunity to pass the time by talking to some of the delegates, elected officials and just plain folks that were excited to be there and hoping to be a part of history. We struck up conversations about the upcoming election and the candidates, but mostly the concern was about where the country was headed. There was no anger or Obama bashing. Even the protestors mellowed after a while because everyone just kind of let them alone to do their thing and didn’t give them a hard time.
My first conversation actually was with a Hispanic man who I complained to about the oppressive humidity. We both found out that we were fellow Californians and he told me that he was there as a delegate and was hoping that Romney was the right choice. He told me that he was a little apprehensive about the ticket. His main concern was jobs and the high unemployment rate in California. He also said that he was angry because he had spent seven years becoming an American citizen the “right way” and now with a stroke of a pen Obama had basically granted amnesty to millions of illegals. He said that he had voted Obama in 2008 but was not going to make the same mistake again. I asked him why as a Republican he had voted for Obama and his answer was the same as many others; he got swept up and believed the hype.
Two older ladies from Florida stood behind us and they said that their main concern was Obamacare and how it was going to affect their future health care. They were very positive about Ryan’s straight talk and felt that he at least was willing to protect them. They were very afraid that if our country stayed on Obama’s course we would end up like Europe.
As the days went on, I tried to talk to as many different types of people as I could. I didn’t have any trouble with that. I went to a “Beer and Brats” Wisconsin party and spoke to some African-Americans. I caught a screening of one of the political films and engaged in conversation with three men who were at the convention as part of a gay Republican group. No matter who I spoke to though, the number one concern was the economy and how it was affecting them now and in the future. In the time I was there, I spoke to a lot of people and social issues were not #1 on their list. Many of them had homes underwater; 401K’s that had lost value and kids who had moved back home because they couldn’t find a job. It became very clear to me that if I was taking a poll of what the main concern at this convention was, it would be the economy and the future of our country.
As the convention was winding down the optimism was electric. Even though the majority of people there were Caucasian, the Republican Party is not your Grandmother’s party anymore. As I walked to my car I could hear people raving about Ted Cruz, Susanna Martinez, Mia Love, Condoleezza Rice, Marco Rubio and not once did I hear the mention of their race or ethnicity. These folks were talking about the speeches they had heard and they liked them. It didn’t matter to them who was saying it, they responded to the message.
The leaders of the Republican Party know the pulse of the people of this country right now; or at least half of them anyway. They know that they need to keep hammering home the positive message that “Yes, we CAN do this, we can do better”.
I saw a little bit of uncertainty about Romney on day one while I was standing in line, but by the last day that skepticism had vanished in these people’s minds. I think the majority of them left Tampa feeling united with a common goal and the promise that a new kind of “hope and change” was on the way.