TAMPA, Fla. - At this point in the presidential campaign, political analysts believe most voters are decided. Polls may show a 25 percent bloc of undecided voters, but in reality, analysts think that number is more like 5 percent. Undecideds who identify themselves as conservative tend to vote for the Republican candidate, and liberal undecideds tend to vote for the Democratic candidate.
So for the next two months, President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney will be fighting for that truly undecided 5 percent, scouring the edges of every demographic for the winning margin. Republicans are now seeking out voters from two groups: women and minorities, especially Hispanics. In polls, Romney has 0 percent of the African-American vote and 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to former President George W. Bush's showing of 11 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Romney is beating Obama among married women voters, but not with single women. The Republican National Convention in Tampa was an obvious pitch to those women and minority voters, from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush delivering greetings in Spanish to Ann Romney holding the primetime slot on the convention's first night.
On the last day of the convention, Roberta Sidwell, 63, was chasing her toddler grandson down the hall in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Of any of the speakers at the convention, she found Ann Romney the most compelling. "It hit home as a mom," she said. But Sidwell represents the female demographic Mitt Romney is already winning - married women. A single woman, Kathy Rust, who worked in the Bush administration and was at the convention, said Ann Romney's story about raising her five sons "resonates well. … I'm grateful that she had that blessing. But I would hope there's more messaging for the rest of us." The Republican party put at least a dozen women in prominent speaking roles at the convention, including the single former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
The speaker lineup was also peppered with ethnic minorities - though the delegates were a sea of white faces. Applause followed African-American Rep. Artur Davis, the former Democrat turned Republican this year, wherever he went at the convention. Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, a close friend of Romney, spoke. Mia Love, who will be the first African-American Republican woman in Congress if she wins her race in Utah this year, was a favorite too. Govs. Brian Sandoval (Hispanic), Susan Martinez (Hispanic), and Nikki Haley (Indian) all spoke. (Right now the Democrats have only one governor who is an ethnic minority, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, while the Republicans have four: Govs. Bobby Jindal, Sandoval, Martinez, and Haley.)
There were Rice (African-American); Senate candidate Ted Cruz (Hispanic); and Jane Edmonds (African-American and Romney's secretary of workforce development). Then there was the current heartthrob of the GOP: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants. Alberto Cardenas, the Cuban-American head of the American Conservative Union, appeared pleased with the scene. "The abundance of riches," he told me. The Katinas (an American Samoan band) grooved out on Wednesday. Bebe Winans and a gospel choir made the white audience sway on Thursday.
Samuel Rodriguez, the evangelical head of the National Christian Hispanic Leadership Conference, delivered the benediction on the first night of the convention.
"I've been following the Republicans and Democrats for a long time. Yesterday's lineup was one of the most saturated groups we've seen at a convention," Rodriguez said the next day. But from Rodriguez's perspective, Republicans have to make policy changes to draw in minority voters. "I am concerned, very concerned, with the contribution of individuals who have similarly contributed to the Arizona- and Alabama-type laws," he said, referring to Kris Kobach, who helped write many of the strict state immigration laws and also contributed to the party's platform on immigration. "I would advise the Republican party to distance itself," he said.
One racist incident at the convention marred the party's public campaign for minority voters when two white alternate delegates attending the convention threw peanuts at an African-American Patricia Carroll, a camerawoman working for CNN, and told her, "This is what we feed animals." Security officers removed them, and the Romney campaign condemned the attendees' actions.
But alongside such an incident were powerful tributes to the civil-rights achievements within the Republican party. "A little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham," said Rice, in a primetime speech to a rapt convention audience. "Her parents can't take her to a movie theater or a restaurant-but they make her believe that even though she can't have a hamburger at the Woolworths lunch counter, she can be president of the United States if she wanted to be. And she becomes the secretary of state."
Rice also said school vouchers or tuition tax credits for low-income, minority families is "the civil-rights issue of our time," to a thunderous standing ovation. Romney, in his speech accepting the nomination, also called for school choice for low-income parents, an issue that has slept undisturbed in the national Republican party for some time.
Rodriguez's advice to the party is to keep putting its minority leaders out front: "It was strategically, from a marketing standpoint, brilliant. I don't think it's going to increase the numbers overnight, but it's a great first step." Cardenas also cautioned that the reach for diversity is a "process" - the Republican Party might not see the fruits by this November.