Cover Story

Into the last laps

"Into the last laps" Continued...

Issue: "Dead heat," Sept. 22, 2012

Still, the question remains: Are the grassroots interested enough? Dyan and Gery Cuprisin aren't so sure. The couple here at the Clearwater event is volunteering for the first time because of the apathy they see among friends and neighbors. "They're more involved in the latest shows on TV than what's happening in the country," says Dyan.

When their church - a non-denominational congregation of several thousand members - invited area churches to an informational forum on issues and candidates earlier this year, the couple says less than 50 people showed up.

Arnakis tells the group they should emphasize the importance of social issues in the upcoming election, but also learn how to talk to undecided voters about complex topics like Medicare and tax reform: "How did Jesus communicate?" he asks the group. "In stories and examples. He took hard concepts and broke them down."

That's a lesson the Romney camp should absorb. In a series of convention speeches in Tampa, a litany of Republican politicians spoke of the problems created by Obama. Fewer spoke of concrete solutions. In conversations with voters outside the convention hall, many spoke of "taking the country back" or stopping Obama, but fewer spoke of how to accomplish those goals.

Back in Clearwater, Kirkland says that's a problem when it comes to undecided voters. "An undecided voter doesn't care about a party message," he told the volunteers. "You have to talk to them about their issues."

For social conservatives, some of their issues didn't get heavy play during major convention speeches. Though Rick Santorum emphasized the importance of pro-life causes, and the GOP platform was pointedly pro-life, Romney devoted one line of a 37-minute speech to social issues: "As president, I'll respect the sanctity of life. I'll honor the institution of marriage."

Perhaps that was a political calculation after Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., caused an uproar by using the term "legitimate rape" when discussing abortion a week earlier. (An interviewer had asked Akin whether abortion should be legal in the cases of rape.)

By the middle of the RNC, the Obama campaign - which hadn't emphasized its pro-abortion stance - seized the controversy. A television ad running on large screens in the Tampa convention center warned that Romney favors overturning Roe v. Wade, and featured a woman saying: "It's a scary time to be a woman."

Tony Perkins - president of the Family Research Council and a Louisiana delegate at the convention - said the GOP shouldn't avoid the subject of abortion: "I think Republicans do themselves a disservice when they run from the fact that they are the party that protects life."

Indeed, with polls showing that pro-life sentiment is increasing in America, Perkins says: "It's something to run to - not from."

Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values, says social conservatives face pushback from the "financial elites" of the GOP who would like to avoid discussing abortion and marriage. "But the worst possible thing that the party can do is get in the crouching position and put their hands over their head," he said. Instead, Bauer says the party should emphasize that Democrats favor abortion in all circumstances: "The extremists on abortion are in the other party."

Extremism was on display a day later at a pro-life reception near the Tampa arena. While pro-life supporters gathered in a second-story reception area over a busy street, protesters from the group Code Pink gathered on the corner in full view of the window. They wore lewd costumes depicting female anatomy, and carried lewd signs. Upstairs, Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, dismissed the Democratic idea that the GOP is engaged in a war on women: "It's actually a war for women." Nance says it's a war rooted in compassion for unborn children and the women who carry them: "If you let the other side define you, you lose."

Social conservatives weren't the only grassroots group calling for a louder voice. A heated controversy over Republican Party rules erupted during the first day of the convention.

A controversial proposal by Ben Ginsberg - lead attorney for the Romney campaign - would have allowed presidential nominees under some conditions to choose or replace delegates before conventions. (Delegates are typically elected by state and local parties.)

Grassroots activists saw the move as an attempt to squelch the influence of candidates like Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who enjoyed widespread grassroots support during his presidential campaign.

That proposal didn't survive, but another one did: The GOP can now change party rules between conventions, instead of waiting for fuller debates on a convention floor.

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