From ‘Raging Grannies’ to unruly Ron Paul delegates, the unscripted highlights at the RNC

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Paul Ryan and his family at the GOP convention. - PHOTO: C. Wolgast

In four years, when Republicans gather again for a national convention, will they remember the 2012 event took place in Tampa?

Maybe – if they attended or hosted or watched The Weather Channel.

Will they remember what Mitt Romney said? Perhaps they’ll vaguely recall he pledged to reduce the role of government, except when it comes to marriage and choice.

Will they remember Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair, pretending to converse with Barack Obama? Oh, yes.

Today’s nominating conventions no longer take place in smoke-filled back rooms. Instead they are orchestrated from back rooms to be highly scripted, slightly glamorous affairs. Speeches are drafted, redrafted, rehearsed and then released with an “embargoed until delivery” stamp for the press’ consumption. Slick signs are handed out in the hall to delegates, and any handmade signs need party approval. Evenings follow themes. Speakers adhere to scripts. Audiences applaud mostly on cue.

So some of the most memorable are the moments not programmed into the teleprompters – such as mystery speaker Eastwood’s inexplicable dialogue with an invisible president. Isaac – a threat to Tampa Bay as a tropical storm and a disaster in the Northern Gulf as a hurricane – was not in the script. The renegades for Ron Paul didn’t go by a script. Neither did the Code Pink protesters who disrupted the convention nights nor the attendee removed from the forum after making racist comments to a black CNN camerawoman.

Below are some of the moments WiG found most noteworthy.

Aug. 25

It’s Saturday and reporters gather in downtown Tampa to collect credentials – shiny daily passes that dangle on a lanyard – along with swag bags containing Mitt Romney’s book, a magnet, a beer can koozie, Tampa brochures, sunscreen, sunglasses and a battery-powered fan.

Afterward, it’s a rush to television sets to watch forecasters track the path of slow-moving Tropical Storm Isaac and listen to anchors make odds on whether the weather will force a delay in the convention.

At about 6:30 p.m., RNC chair Reince Priebus, who formerly headed the Wisconsin Republican Party, announces that Day 1 is off. Now attendees can look at Sunshine State maps to see about making a day trip to Busch Gardens or Disney World. Wisconsin delegates get directions to hot spots from their headquarters at the Hyatt Regency Tampa.

Aug. 26

Stormy skies and forecasts for severe weather later in the evening don’t interfere with the RNC welcome party at Tropicana Field – home of the Tampa Bay Rays. Hosts provide open bars and serve Cuban sandwiches and seafood fresh from Tarpon Springs, but working reporters complain about being kept off the field.

The same night, Florida chapters of the Log Cabin Republicans carry on with a meet-and-greet party for gay delegates at the Rusty Pelican, a steak and seafood spot that draws crowds for the sunsets.

Aug. 27

The convention opens and then immediately recesses due to the threat of Isaac, which turns out to be a minor event for the Bay area.

The National Hurricane Center says the storm veered away on a northwesterly path due to upper-air steering currents and warm Gulf water. But a local pastor boasts that her prayer team prayed away Isaac: “It has really moved out of the way for us and we appreciate God doing that and moving it for us.”

For delegates, the weather delay provides the opportunity to explore nearby venues, especially the cigar bars, restaurants, coffee houses and nightclubs of Ybor City.

Some are heard talking about the Paul Ryan lookalike at a gay bathhouse in Ybor City and porn star and Palinesque stripper Lisa Ann at The Dollhouse. But no one admits witnessing the shows to WiG.

Not many delegates line downtown streets to see rain-soaked demonstrators calling for peace, justice and jobs in the March on the RNC. About 500 protesters participate, and both police and press outnumber them. At one point, a member of the Raging Grannies Action League, which is challenging the GOP’s anti-abortion plank, is surrounded by eight reporters and three photographers and, beyond them, six state troopers. “I still have hope for Barack,” she says.

Dozens of the protesters are lodging at Camp Romneyville on vacant land behind an army-navy surplus store near an interstate overpass. Some sleep in tents, others in cars. “We are here because we want peace, and it hasn’t been fully delivered,” says Amelie Robertson of Orlando, Fla. “We are here because we want health care for all, and it hasn’t been delivered. We are here because we want jobs created and civil liberties recognized.”

Aug. 28

One of the first orders of convention business is the adoption of the platform, a 62-page document that reflects the beliefs of the party’s right-wing and calls for “defending marriage against an activist judiciary,” adopting a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, banning abortion, encouraging voter ID laws, backing oil exploration in the Arctic Refuge and construction of the Keystone Pipeline.

The platform pledges to move Medicaid and Medicare away from the “entitlement model,” opposes “any form of amnesty” for undocumented immigrants and demands the repeal the Affordable Care Act on the first day of a Republican presidency.

Convention business also involves the adoption of rules and the roll call of states for the nomination. Vocal and ardent Ron Paul supporters in the hall shout for the Texas congressman to be allowed to speak and his delegates to be seated, creating a ruckus. Security becomes more visible but delegates get even more unruly. They chant “USA! USA!” as Zori Fonalledas of Puerto Rico tries to make her speech and Priebus calls for order.

Later, an RNC attendee is ejected after throwing peanuts at an African-American camerawoman for CNN. “This is how we feed animals,” he said.

The evening’s script focuses on “We Built It.” Loyalists cheer speakers who talk about the businesses they say they built and repeatedly attack the president for saying, “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Critics observe that the GOP has based four hours of speeches on that out-of-context remark by the president who, during a campaign speech in Virginia, was talking about how government, with infrastructure and programs, helps businesses prosper.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks, talking about his recall election survival and his “reforms,” which means union-busting.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers the keynote, highlighting his “reforms,” which also means union-busting.

Aug. 29

Delegates wake up with coffee and the Tampa Tribune, which has a full-page ad purchased by Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry and LCR. The ad emphasizes conservative reasons to support marriage equality.

The made-for-TV theme of the day is “We Can Change It,” and Wisconsin is in the spotlight as the program builds to Ryan’s speech. Although that speech provides some touching personal moments, it is laced with falsehoods. Ryan gives the press fodder for days of gleeful fact-checking by making some far-fetched claims on and off the podium. He says he ran a marathon in under three hours – he really finished in just over four hours. He attacks Obama for failing to deliver on his promise to help save a plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville from closure, but fails to mention that the plant closed before the president took office.

Ryan and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee both attack marriage equality and abortion rights. Huckabee says, “The only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama, and he supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb or even beyond the womb and tells people of faith that they must bow their knees to the god of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls health care.”

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sends cheering delegates to their feet with a hawkish speech that at times sounds like a call for more war. Just as there are delegates who wanted Ron Paul to be the presidential nominee, there are delegates who wish Rice was the vice presidential nominee – but she’s pro-choice and pro-civil unions, which disqualifies her.

Aug. 30

The theme is “We Believe in America” and the night is supposed to be all about Romney – speakers talk about the candidate’s years as a volunteer pastor, as the builder of Bain Capital, as the governor of Massachusetts and as the savior of the 2002 Olympics. They talk about his compassion for people and his leadership style. They also call him cheap.

The lineup is light, because the nominee’s speech traditionally is long. Highlights include introducing Tea Party star Marco Rubio to the masses. Unscripted, the Cuban- American senator from Florida calls for freedom and liberty on the island.

The night also brings Eastwood – who supports marriage equality – to the stage with a chair, which the actor pretends contains the sitting president. Delegates laugh, but seem confused at the rambling speech. They really want to hear Dirty Harry say, “Go ahead, make my day.” After he obliges, Eastwood walks off stage.

Romney speaks for about 45 minutes before the big balloon and confetti drop. He talks at length about the president’s record on the economy.

“If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama?” he asks in an appeal to independents and Democrats.

Aug. 31

The barricades and fencing come down in Tampa, streets reopen, press flies out, security forces move on and the homeless – the city has one of the largest homeless populations in the country – reclaim downtown parks, some toting GOP swag bags and sporting Romney-Ryan buttons.

The top-of-the-ticket candidates depart from a small airport, where they are waved off by well-wishers and shouted at by protesters. “You tell me how to feel about two dicks who want to tell me what to do with my body,” says Robin Greaves of Port Charlotte, Fla.

A caravan of demonstrators departs for Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic National Convention, which is to take place at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Occupier Sean Holder of Sarasota, Fla., says he’s making the trip, partly because the Democrats “get better bands.” The DNC’s entertainment lineup includes James Taylor, Foo Fighters, Marc Anthony and Mary J. Blige on the night Obama accepts the nomination. The RNC’s lineup included “American Idol” Taylor Hicks, gospel singer BeBe Winans and Jake Blades, the former lead singer of Night Ranger.

Sept. 1

A new month. A day off.

Sept. 2

Late, around 11 p.m., WiG departs Tampa Bay for Charlotte, traveling north into Georgia, then South Carolina and North Carolina, because DNC credentials will be dispersed on Sept. 3. The Democrats begin their party on Sept. 4. Other reporters are also on their way, as are politicians, protesters and delegates. Wisconsin’s delegation will be staying at the Embassy Suites-Airport, along with the celebrities. But Clint Eastwood? Probably not.

P.S. There was no Eastwood in Charlotte. And, with the public attending many convention events, no empty chairs. Look for WiG's next issue for coverage of the DNC, and find breaking news at www.wisconsingazette.com.