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In convention speech, a test for Chris Christie

6:24 PM, Apr 7, 2013   |    comments
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(CBS News) As Republicans from across the country descend on Tampa for the party's official nominating convention, Chris Christie will be preparing for his big moment: The famously outspoken Republican governor of New Jersey, and a rising star of the GOP, will deliver the convention's keynote speech - a role that's known for catapulting politicians into the national spotlight as much as for pumping up the presumptive party's nominee.

Admired though he is for his rhetorical abilities, Christie faces a delicate balancing act in Tampa. In terms of style, he and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney could hardly be more different: Where Christie is unusually loose-lipped and prone to searing criticism -- he's been known to mock everyone from journalists to fellow Republicans -- Romney is viewed as cautious and controlled.

"The keynote speech is always a mix of the personal attributes and qualities of the speaker," said one Democratic strategist who has worked with Democrats on convention speeches in the past. "In this case, it's a guy who's clearly got a big future ahead in the Republican Party. But his message is going to be carefully calibrated and controlled by the nominee. Governor Christie, in order to give a home-run speech, really has to make it his own."

On Tuesday, Christie will prove whether or not he can do both.

Making it Matter

Presidential nominating conventions are rife with political fanfare, but the keynote speaking role is one in which each party has the opportunity to showcase one of their most exciting up-and-comers.

Under less pressure than the nominee or the vice presidential candidate to give a policy-heavy address, the keynote speaker has an opportunity to generate enthusiasm among the base, according to David Demarest, a White House communications director during the George H. W. Bush administration now at Stanford University. "Look at what Ann Richards did," he said, referring to her now-famous "silver spoon" comment at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. "She just really lit that convention up."

Still, Christie is bound to face constraints in the tone, nature, and content of his remarks. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, little in presidential politics is left to chance -- and convention keynote speeches have been tightly controlled for much of of modern history.

Neither Christie's office nor the Romney campaign answered questions about the nature of the speech-writing process, but Lee Huebner, a professor at George Washington University and former speechwriter in the Nixon administration, remembers that even in 1972, before the dawn of cable news, Twitter, and YouTube, the Nixon campaign made "a real effort to think through and control in advance the tone and style of the convention" to the point that no major speech escaped major edits from the campaign.

"The reaction in 1972 by most of us was that this was overkill," Huebner said. "My guess is that you have a lot of high-powered people bearing down pretty hard on, if not every word, at least the tone and content of these speeches."

The extent of a campaign's involvement in the process inevitably varies from campaign to campaign, but the common thread is that the keynote speaker, whatever his political aspirations, is a representative for the nominee.

"My experience is the candidate and his team has total editorial control. The last thing they would want would be to have somebody truly freelancing," said Demarest. "You don't want somebody speaking in ways that aren't them, because then it's not going to be a good speech. It's got to be genuine, but no two politicians have exactly the same views on every issue. You don't want any of those differences coming out in the convention speech."

According to the Democratic strategist, there's a "bartering process" that inevitably takes place. "You've got two sets of authors. Romney's convention group will be making multiple suggestions and offering advice probably down to specific language. That's the tension. In order to give a good speech, it has to be authentic and in the vocabulary that the speaker is comfortable with -- but at the same time, it has to cover all of Governor Romney's points."

Part of walking that tightrope successfully is about hitting the right tone.

"It's easier to unite people against the opponent than it is to unite people for something," said Huebner, particularly given the "recent fragmentation and polarization of the electorate." As a result, "a lot of these speeches do become attacks on the other side. The challenge, is can you do that without looking as though you have nothing but negative, harsh, unreasonable things to say?"

But Christie's abilities, he says, may be particularly well-suited to such a task.

"His direct style sort of lends itself to [going on the attack] in a way that's witty and refreshing rather than angry and ornery," he said. "He can use critical language in a refreshingly candid way."

A game-changer for Christie?

Christie probably doesn't need to be told that he needs to deliver on Tuesday: A strong speech on his part will help gin up excitement for the Romney-Ryan ticket, but it could also be a huge boon for his political future.

"You don't need any more evidence than Barack Obama to indicate how career-changing a speech like this could be," said the Democratic strategist. "Most people probably don't know much about Chris Christie. This is really his first opportunity to really gain a national office and to speak more broadly to the national Republican Party."

In order to achieve that level of success, the Democratic strategist said, he needs to "check every box that the nominee's campaign needs to have checked."

Clark Judge, a former speechwriter for President Reagan and founder and managing director of the White House Writers Group, points out that Christie has a powerful incentive for doing just that.

"The up-and-coming candidate won't make a name for himself unless he does a good job in promoting the candidate," he said. "If you handed this to me today, I could write that speech and so could about 200 other people. There is a broadly shared consensus about what the problems are and what direction to go in. The question here is, can Governor Christie deliver that message? And there is every reason to think that he can."

Barring a disastrous, off-script gaffe, it's unlikely Christie can do much harm on the podium -- even if his speech doesn't get rave reviews. 

"It's hard to imagine serious damage," said Demarest. Pointing to Bill Clinton's 1988 convention speech, in which the then-Arkansas governor delivered a 33-minute address that, according to Time magazine "seemed about five times as long," a lackluster speech is more likely to slip under the radar than not. 

 "People wrote then that that would be the end of Bill Clinton's career," Demarest said. "He obviously proved them quite wrong."  

Christie doesn't seem too concerned. At a press conference earlier this week, he emphasized that nerves are not a problem: "I'm not nervous. Nah. I'm excited. It's a great opportunity for me personally, it's a great opportunity for our state."

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