In his keynote speech Tuesday night, Chris Christie never mentioned President Obama by name. He referred once to “Mr. President,” and he said, “It’s time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office.”
That was as tough as his speech got on Obama. There were few zingers and none of the “red meat” that Christie had been expected to deliver. A personal attack on Obama? Not in Christie’s speech. Instead, it contrasted “what we believe as Republicans and what they believe as Democrats.”
Rarely has a partisan convention been as soft-hitting toward its leading opponent—in this case, an incumbent president. The keynote speaker is normally the most slashing and unsparing in his criticism of the other party’s presidential candidate. But Christie set a different tone and the other Republican speakers followed.
The convention strategy of the Romney campaign is aimed at appealing to a subset of voters: 2008 Obama voters who are disillusioned with his presidency, plus undecided independents and swing voters. The fear is these voters, many of whom still like Obama personally, might be alienated by furious attacks on him.
The vice presidential candidate usually emerges as the chief attack dog. But while Paul Ryan was highly critical last night in deconstructing Obama’s record, his speech was rougher on the president than Christie was and scornful of several Obama statements. This was the approach of his mentor, Jack Kemp, the vice presidential running mate of Republican Bob Dole in 1996.
Christie was more stinging in his references to Obama when he spoke yesterday to the Alabama delegation at a Tampa hotel. He said the president has been operating in the dark for three and a half years and only now is reaching for “the light switch of leadership.” He ran his hand along the wall behind him as if groping for the switch. “He’s not going to find it in the next 60 days,” Christie said.
But this was away from a national television audience. Christie also said Mitt Romney won’t have to read an owner’s manual if he’s elected president in November, suggesting Obama needed to when he entered the White House.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was more pointed in zinging Obama in his convention speech. “For four years, Barack Obama has been running from the nation’s problems,” he said in prepared remarks. “He hasn’t been working to earn reelection. He’s been working to earn a spot on the PGA tour.” McConnell’s speech was not in prime time.
Artur Davis, the former Democratic congressman who switched parties in May, appealed directly to voters who backed Obama in 2008, as Davis had. The key was to treat their 2008 vote as high-minded. “We led with our hearts and our dreams that we could be more inclusive than America had ever been, and no candidate had ever spoken so beautifully,” Davis said.
“But dreams meet daybreak: the jobless know what I mean,” he said. He urged Obama voters “who are searching right now” to listen to what Democrats are saying and “ask yourself if these Democrats still speak for you.”
Some Republican speakers alluded to Obama by name, but others, like Christie, didn’t. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell mentioned “this president’s policies.” House Speaker John Boehner twice referred to Obama by name, saying he “only offers excuses” and “just doesn’t get” how small businesses are built.
“President Obama has never even run a lemonade stand,” Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said. “We need to replace Barack Obama.”
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker didn’t mention Obama at all. He cited his state reforms that “put hardworking taxpayers back in charge.” Rather than Obama specifically, “the federal government seems to be going in the opposite direction,” Walker said. ♦