Convention projects a GOP diverse in race, class

New York Times News ServiceAugust 31, 2012 

TAMPA -- There was Ann Romney's tuna and pasta dinners and her Welsh mining grandfather, Paul Ryan's mother on the bus, Tim Pawlenty's truck-driving father, and Susana Martinez, growing up on the border and living paycheck to paycheck.

As the Republican Party puts forward its wealthiest presidential standard-bearer in generations, convention planners have striven not just to project a more ethnically and racially diverse party but also a less fortunate one. The message: We are not rich and white.

Diverse speakers

The tableau on the speaker's rostrum has been a pageant of color, class and bootstrap storytellers. Speakers have included Mia Love, an African-American House candidate from Utah whose parents came penniless from Haiti; Gov. Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico; Martinez, the governor of New Mexico; and Condoleezza Rice, the first black woman to be secretary of state. Corporate titans have been swapped out for small-business owners, generals for wounded foot soldiers, entrenched elected leaders for minority House candidates.

"What you're seeing substantively is a party that has become the champion of small business, and, dare I say it, the middle class," said Carly Fiorina, the multimillionaire former chief of Hewlett-Packard, who ran for a Senate seat in California in 2010 and will not give a convention speech. "If you look at the people who have been speaking here, from Mia Love to Susana Martinez, Bob McDonnell to Luis Fortuno, I mean, it's not just a different image. It's a different reality."

Republican pollsters and strategists have been warning for years that demographics is destiny, and a diversifying population could doom a party that cannot attract minority voters. This is not the first convention to make such an overt appeal to voting blocs heavily drawn to the Democrats. George W. Bush's convention in Philadelphia in 2000 was criticized for taking a show of diversity to an almost comical extreme.

That year, Matthew Dowd, an adviser to the Bush campaign, said the Republican ticket would have to win 38 percent of the Hispanic vote to win. Bush hit the target. By 2004, the target was 40 percent. Bush cleared the bar.

But the party has slid back, and the bar has risen, Dowd said. Mitt Romney and President Obama are even in national polls in large part because of the other side of the equation, the president's slide among white men.

Horatio Alger stories

This year, the convention's image effort has added class to the mix. Romney is estimated to be worth a quarter-billion dollars. He is the son of an automobile chief executive, and he attended one of the most exclusive private schools in the Midwest, then Stanford, Brigham Young and Harvard universities.

But the party appears to be burying those facts under an outpouring of Horatio Alger tales.

"We got married and moved into a basement apartment," Ann Romney confided to the nation Tuesday night. "We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, and ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish."

Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, hails from a family with deep roots in Wisconsin and one of the largest construction companies in the state, but Wednesday night, viewers learned of his small-town lawyer father and his mother, who struggled to find herself after his death at age 55.

For the attentive viewer, such stories have become a litany. Martinez told of her father, a Golden Gloves boxer in the Marine Corps, then a deputy sheriff struggling on the Mexican border. Senate candidate Ted Cruz's father was imprisoned and tortured in Cuba and arrived in Texas, with $100 sewn into his underwear, to wash dishes for 50 cents an hour.

Not to be topped, Love assured viewers that her Haitian parents arrived with only $10 in their pockets.

Republicans understand the imperative behind the narrative, not only because they are facing the first African-American president, whose support among Hispanics and blacks is overwhelming, but because minority voting blocs are threatening to swamp the white Republican base in the future.

"It's unbelievably important. It's indispensable to the party's success," said Ricky Gill, an Indian-American House candidate in California, who said the appeal had to move beyond image to policies focused on issues of interest to minorities, like school choice and immigration law changes.

Calling out Democrats

Congressman Allen West jumped into the conversation and told a group of black Republicans gathered for the party's national convention Wednesday that Democrats are racist and the media doesn't call them on it.

West said Democrats have gotten away with attacking black conservatives. He then turned to the two reporters covering the event and said he had a challenge for them.

"'Tell the story. You guys allow the other side to attack black conservatives, and you don't call them out," West said. "That's the most racist party I've ever seen in my life and you don't call them out."

West has enraged Democrats several times, calling them communists and comparing their communications strategy to Nazi propaganda, among other comments.

West, a former Army officer, is serving his first term representing a Broward and Palm Beach county district, but is running for re-election in a Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie county district. He has become a national star among tea party Republicans. While he acknowledged the party has a long way to go in building support among blacks, he said the party represents the same economic and social values as the black community.

"There's no other group more conservative on a Sunday than the black community. But someone's got to tell me, Lucy, what happens Monday through Saturday? And that's what's got to change," he said. "For too long this community has invested its political capital in one political party and what are the dividends that you have gotten back from that?"

He pointed out that the unemployment among blacks is significantly higher than the rest of the country, particularly for teenagers, and that the median income for black families has dropped 11 percent since President Barack Obama took office.

"This wouldn't be the first time Allen West has either deliberately misled the American people or has found himself grossly ill-informed. But the truth is, President Obama has laid the groundwork for a fairer economy that rewards work, not just wealth," said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Ellen Canale, who added that Obama's payroll tax cut, expansion of college grants for students in need and health care overhaul have helped black families.

Republican National Committee co-chair Sharon Day told the just more than 50 guests at the luncheon that black families have been worse off under Obama.

"We know this president has been a total disaster for the black community," she said as she encouraged the group to help build support among blacks.

She also said the party needs to reach out and make sure blacks are more involved.

"Not for a photo op. Not to have individuals stand on a stage to look behind a candidate, but to be in front of the stage making a difference and being part of the solution," she said.

Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, the first black to hold the position, talked about how when she entered her first political campaign as a Republican people were puzzled.

"I was a freak of nature," she said, before joking, "At least I'm a good-looking freak of nature."

More seriously, she stressed that the message needs to be that Republicans need to make their appeal to black voters through issues.

"It's all about the jobs and the economy and if we do not take care of that, the sustainability of families and the prosperity of these families are going to go away," Carroll said. "And when we see all the statistics of the numbers moving in the wrong direction for African-American families across this country, we have to stop and take pause and say what you've been doing for all these years are the wrong things."

People on the podium

Mel Martinez, a former Republican senator from Florida and one of the party's loudest voices for a softer tone on immigration, praised the convention planners.

"They've done a phenomenal job, and you know why? It's real," he said. "It isn't just sticking a few Hispanics on the floor and trying to get the camera to notice them. It's about the people on the podium."

Dowd is not as impressed. Bush made inroads into minority communities because he spoke Spanish, embraced an immigration overhaul hated by many conservatives and confronted intolerance in his party, he said. Romney's task will be to add substance to the pageantry.

"You can't win Latino votes with imagery," Dowd said. "All I have seen is imagery without substantive outreach."

-- Information from the Assocaited Press supplemented this report

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