TAMPA–One thing was clear from this year’s Republican National Convention here: No matter who wins the presidential election, the torch has been passed to a new generation of Republicans.
That was symbolized dramatically by Mitt Romney’s selection of 42-year-old Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, which already has helped in the polls. Ryan gave a blistering, well-crafted speech Wednesday night, indicating he will be a formidable force in the fall and beyond.
And although I and other observers had qualms about Chris Christie’s keynote speech Tuesday night, the feisty 50-year-old New Jersey governor is angling for something much bigger in the future.
Finally Marco Rubio, the US senator from Florida, who introduced Romney before his acceptance speech, is not just a rising star, but a rising supernova who got enormous support from Republicans for the second slot on the ticket even though he’s only 41 and has served in the Senate for less than two years. His speech Thursday was eloquent and personal, electrifying the crowd at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
And there’s a whole other tier of talented emerging leaders we’ll hear from in the future.
But what about the people who’ve defined the party over the last few years? The other candidates in the terrible Republican field this year—Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain–were nowhere to be seen, as was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was stuck with an early time slot at the podium, with his wife Calista.
But those people were always pretenders. Some who were once presidential contenders also were effectively sidelined.
Former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush got an early slot Thursday in which he defended his brother’s record as president and talked about education—an important issue but not the main event in a year devoted to jobs, jobs, jobs. He got friendly but not enthusiastic applause.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—who put up a real challenge to John McCain four years ago—spoke Wednesday in support of Romney’s candidacy. But he seemed listless and formulaic, and his main purpose was to give Evangelical blessing to the party’s Mormon presidential candidate.
And former Senator Rick Santorum, who became Romney’s main challenger in the primaries, was the only speaker I saw who talked about abortion and social issues, sounding really off message on a day whose theme was “we built it.” He also seems angry and bitter over his primary defeat.
What’s going on? Romney outspent and outorganized all his opponents, while Bush and Huckabee didn’t run. Huckabee, 57, is making lots of money as a conservative radio host who’s competing against Rush Limbaugh and also has a talk show on the Fox News Channel. And I never really thought he had much appeal beyond Evangelical Christians.
As for Bush, well, his big brother George may have ruined his chances for good. Does anyone really want to elect another Bush to the White House after the catastrophe of the last one?
That’s a shame, because Jeb Bush, who turns 60 next year, is a thoughtful, capable man who was a successful governor, believes in compromise, and might actually make a good president. But if he tries to run in four or eight years, he’ll have stiff competition from the talented next generation of Republican leaders.
In politics, there are many cases of political stars whose chances came and went. Think Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York.
That’s probably true of Santorum, Huckabee, and Jeb Bush, who either didn’t seize the moment as Romney did or whose moment may never come.