How Democrats keep gate-crashing the GOP convention

Once upon a time, convention week was a chance for the opposing candidate to rest up. That began to change in 2008 – Obama and the Democrats are now running full tilt during the GOP convention.

Steve Helber/AP
President Obama shrugs during a rally in Charlottesville, Va., Wednesday. Obama made a surprise appearance on Reddit, a popular Internet social news site, and took questions from users in the site’s 'Ask Me Anything.'

It’s no coincidence that President Obama chose Wednesday to make a surprise appearance on Reddit, a popular Internet social news site. The president took questions from users in the site’s “Ask Me Anything,” or AMA, forum – and in the process, siphoned off some attention from the GOP Convention in Tampa.

Along with the pomp and ceremony of the official convention programming comes a more under-the-radar tradition: the numerous ways the rival party concocts to undercut that programming and message.

In the past, there’s been at least a partial, mutually respected truce during conventions, in which the rival presidential candidate himself takes the week off from campaigning, often using the convention days to grab a brief vacation. But that tradition was eroded in 2008, when both then-Senator Obama and Sen. John McCain scheduled some campaign events during the other’s convention.

This year, the Democratic insurgency is in full swing, with a roster of heavy-hitting surrogates launching defensive attacks from the Democratic war room just blocks from the convention center, and Obama himself campaigning to an unprecedented degree during the convention on college campuses and in swing states. Until hurricane Isaac threatened, Vice President Biden was even scheduled to be in Tampa, which would have been unheard of. 

The advent of super PACS and nonstop ads playing in swing states over the summer “has frontloaded the entire campaign insurgency, because no one wants to let their foot off the pedal in terms of keeping up the drumbeat for their viewpoint,” says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Here in Tampa, a deep roster of well-known Democrats have been chatting up reporters, holding press conferences, and even infiltrating the Tampa Bay Times Forum (“There were a lot of double-takes,” former Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reportedly said afterward).

Mr. Gibbs is one of the most familiar Democratic faces hiding amid the hordes of Republican ones in Tampa, but he’s far from alone. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is here too, as is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Obama’s campaign cochair, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who will be the stand-in for the GOP vice presidential nominee in Biden’s debate preparations.

They’re available to rebut all the GOP spin, and press conferences each day in the Democratic war room have taken on specific themes: why Mitt Romney is bad for the middle class; why Mr. Romney is bad for women; why Romney was bad for Massachusetts.

On Thursday, Democrats were falling over each other to refute the many claims in vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s speech.

“There’s no delicate way to say this. Last night Paul Ryan lied – repeatedly, knowingly and brazenly,” Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told reporters Thursday. She and other Democrats hammered on Ryan for his statements on Medicare, on the president’s debt commission, and on the closing of a GM plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wis., implying that Obama broke his promise to plant workers, when it actually closed under President Bush.

The surrogates in town are some of Obama’s most eloquent defenders, and they’re ready with memorable quotes to try to counter the cacophony of conservative rhetoric.

“I heard Governor Christie talk about the importance of truth-telling. I just didn’t hear any truth-telling out of him,” says Congressman Van Hollen. “I don’t think the American people will think it’s brave to give another round of tax cuts to the very wealthy, to people like Mitt Romney, at the expense of seniors on Medicare who have a median income of $23,000.”

Mayor Villaraigosa, meanwhile, has been taking aim at GOP diversity – and the roster of speakers in Tampa that overemphasizes Hispanics’ and other minorities’ role in the party.

"You can't just trot out a brown face or a Spanish surname and expect people are going to vote for your party or your candidate," Villaraigosa said at a press conference Tuesday.

And full-page Democratic ads in the Tampa Tribune have assailed Romney’s record with the middle class and worked to link Romney and Ryan to Rep. Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate candidate who famously suggested “legitimate rape” won’t lead to pregnancy.

But more notable than the sharp defense game in Tampa, perhaps, is the fact that it hasn’t just been surrogates talking for Obama this week.

Unlike in the past, when George W. Bush retired to Crawford, Texas, for the week or Bill Clinton retreated to Jackson, Wyo. – getting a much-needed break along with ceding the spotlight to their opponents for a few days – Obama has stepped up campaign efforts, especially on college campuses, and grabbed a fair number of Internet headlines Wednesday with the surprise Reddit appearance.

“There are 70 days left to the election, and we’re not going to cede any one of them,” Cutter told reporters.

Michelle Obama appeared on David Letterman Wednesday night (she said she hasn’t been watching the convention), and if Biden had gone to Tampa as planned, that would have been the highest level surrogate to infiltrate a rival party’s convention.

The Obama campaign says he canceled the trip so that he wouldn’t get in the way of local security needs for the hurricane, but Professor MacManus wonders if a fear of bad press might have contributed as well.

“I think one of the reasons they might have pulled back is that it was beginning to look like it was bad form. People didn’t appreciate it,” she says.

Obama also has nothing planned that would conflict with Romney’s big speech Thursday night.

With an election this close, though, neither side seemed inclined to let tradition or etiquette get in the way of a chance to score points.

Next week, during the Democratic National Convention, Romney also plans to keep campaigning.

Staff writer David Grant contributed to this report.

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