Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice led off a crucial triple-punch combination that transfixed the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday night.
Hurricane Isaac thankfully hit the Sunshine State with a pale echo of Category 3 Hurricane Katrina when it smashed into New Orleans seven years ago (I was in Fort Lauderdale then and watched it loom). But Rice, followed by New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, unleashed a Category 3 hurricane of rhetoric on the flailing Obama re-election campaign.
Rice has always been a highly effective public speaker, but in 12 years of covering her appearances I have never heard her to more effect than on Wednesday night.
She has always preferred the roles of diplomat, public intellectual and academic to running for office herself. But her speech was of huge importance in lighting up the RNC on its second day.
With her old colleague and friend Robert Zoellick now in the key role of being Gov. Mitt Romney’s top foreign policy adviser and coordinator, Rice’s triumph revives the prospect that if Romney wins in November, he may pick her for secretary of defense or for a second tour as secretary of state.
If the latter, Rice would be only the second person (the first was Daniel Webster) ever to serve in the role twice. The forgotten David Newsom technically served as secretary of state twice for Jimmy Carter in 1980, but as he only did so for two terms of a single day each, he doesn’t really count (except for to the nitpickers).
Rice spoke at a crucial moment in the convention. The planned first day on Monday was cancelled due to fears about the potential impact of Isaac and Gov. Chris Christie's kickoff of the major speakers on Tuesday was definitely perceived as under-powered and lukewarm in his enthusiasm for candidate Romney.
The nominee’s wife Ann delivered the goods in her own speech, and confirmed what everybody knew already – that she would make a confident, stylish and highly effective First Lady. But the only news or surprise would have been had she bungled that presentation. The truncated convention badly needed a supercharged jump-start – and Rice provided it.
Romney and his planners showed their acumen by not only by showcasing Rice in prime time, but by following up on her at once with a breakthrough speech by New Mexico Gov. Sandra Martinez.
In these columns I have repeatedly urged Martinez as a possible vice presidential pick. Paul Ryan is proving a red hot winner in that role for Romney, confirming his political judgment.
But Martinez spoke so powerfully, so affectingly and so well that she clearly established herself as a political leader of natural stature. She now has to be a frontrunner for the post of homeland security secretary in the first Romney administration. Furthermore, from now on she must certainly be a a leading contender for the running mate slot on any future GOP ticket, especially one led eight years from now by Paul Ryan.
Ryan could easily have been overshadowed by the effectiveness of his warm-up speakers: He wasn’t. A seasoned figure on the national stage after seven terms in Congress and his effective leadership in the House on financial issues, his speech was a model of what a young, vigorous running mate should be. Sarah Palin proved equally powerful in her congressional appearance
But it was not just what Rice, Martinez and Ryan said that as so effective in Tampa, but who and what they were. Public television carried four hours of the proceedings to its audience of both established liberals and floating independents, and in doing so, it inadvertently blew apart the Obama campaign’s strategy, enthusiastically embraced by MSNBC , of presenting the Republican convention and presidential campaign as the sole property of tired old, rich, white males.
Rice was only the second woman and second African-American in history to serve as secretary of state, and though looking far too young for it, reminded her audience that as a little girl she wasn’t even allowed to go to whites-only movies and diners in her native Little Rock, Arkansas.
Her great career remains a magnificent testimony to the vitality and power of the American dream. Two African-Americans have now served full and effective terms as respected secretaries of state – Rice and the great Gen. Colin Powell. The Democrats have still to appoint their first.
Martinez is the first-ever Hispanic-American woman to become a state governor. When her parents launched their own security guard business, she recalled how she was pressed into service carrying a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, a gun, she said, that felt like it weighed more than she did.
Ryan too came from the other end of society from Gov. Romney, working-class Irish Catholic with a widowed mother.
I covered the emergence of Barack Obama on the national scene with his first class speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, and I made a fool of myself among established pundits when I got back to Washington by saying that I had just heard a likely future president of the United States (I thought he would win in 2012 or 2016, not dreaming how catastrophically inept Hillary Clinton’s $250 million campaign would turn out to be in 2008.)
I heard that same sudden explosion of brilliant political talent onto the national stage in Tampa on Wednesday night. Give Mitt Romney two terms of peace and economic recovery as president, and Paul Ryan will repeat George Herbert Walker Bush’s 1988 achievement and succeed him in a walk. The man is a natural.
The triple-punch triumph of Rice (who still looks like she’s only in her 20s and 30s), Martinez and Ryan and their coverage on PBS nationwide (Don’t scrap it if you win, Mitt, it will have helped elect you), also now looks likely to blow apart the Conventional Wisdom of the Great Pundits that President Obama holds an unassailable lead over Romney among women, Hispanics and young voters in the 18-to-29 age group.
As the still-only 42-year-old Ryan noted, young voters do not want to remain in a perpetual state of unemployment, living in forever in their parent’s house with only a fading Obama poster on the wall to keep them company, and to remind them of false hopes offered but never delivered (a devastating image worthy of a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan).
If the economy does not recover significantly in the next less than 70 days (and who imagines that it can?), that image may raise a tsunami of young voters to propel Romney-Ryan into the White House.
The Rice-Martinez-Ryan triple punch speeches at Tampa gave Mitt Romney another tremendous boost – he will come to his acceptance speech already riding high from proof that the managerial, chairman of board competence he so proved in business has already transferred to his direction of a national presidential campaign. As is rightly repeated ad nauseam, one of the most important tests any chief executive in any business faces is the selection of the best subordinates for crucial roles.
We still have to see how any Romney administration will work out, but the choice of Rice and then Martinez to prepare the way for Ryan, and the choice of Ryan itself, were tactical masterstrokes that could transform the strategic dynamics of the campaign.
Women, Hispanics and younger voters, most of all the younger voters, are now in play. Obama now faces the threat of a nationwide surge in the last month of the campaign against his bankrupt economic policies on the same scale that buried Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Remember – you heard it here first.
Martin Sieff is the author of "That Should Still Be Us: How Thomas Friedman’s Flat World Myths Are Keeping Us Flat on Our Backs."