J. Scott Applewhite/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attends a sound check at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday.

Chris Christie's big hope in GOP convention speech: an Obama repeat

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will give the keynote address at the GOP convention Tuesday night. It's a prestigious slot that usually leads to very little – except in one recent case. 

Quick: Who was the Republican keynote speaker at the GOP’s 2008 national convention? What about the guy who grabbed that lauded speaking role at the Democratic convention that year?

The answers are former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and now-Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, respectively.

But the real answer is: They were largely immaterial to Election 2008. 

Tuesday night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) gives a much-anticipated keynote address at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The speech will be in prime time, with all four broadcast networks covering it live.

It’s “much anticipated” because Governor Christie is a rousing orator with a gift for straight (and often colorful) talk. But what is the potential impact of the marquee opening-night address? If anything, it will likely be on the speaker's own political career, not the presidential race.

“Keynote convention speeches can be a huge leg up in someone’s own political career,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Va. “The real impact is for the individual doing the speaking more than for the party.”

Indeed, there's no recent historical precedent for a keynote address affecting the hopes of the nominated presidential candidate.

Despite Christie’s effectiveness as a speaker, Professor Farnsworth says, “It’s hard to imagine much of anything happening this week that moves the needle all that much,” because there are fewer undecided voters than in previous cycles.

“If they’ve been undecided through all of the onslaught through the television ads and new stories so far I’m not sure the convention is going to pull them off the fence,” Farnsworth says.

And there’s only one recent example of a convention keynote propelling the speaker to greater political heights. The best-case scenario for Christie, it seems, is that he could be the next Barack Obama.

It was in 2004 that Mr. Obama, then an obscure state senator in Illinois, offered a speech that blew the roof off the Fleet Center in Boston. A little good fortune and a lot of ambition – and the notoriety he gained in Boston that night – propelled Obama to the US Senate that year and then to the White House in 2008.

But Obama’s speech didn’t shine any light on presidential hopeful John Kerry, who went to defeat.

The history of other convention keynote speakers has been similarly undistinguished.

Democrat-turned-Republican Zell Miller offered the keynote for President George W. Bush in 2004. While Mr. Miller’s speech was fiery, none credit it with helping Bush over the finish line, and Miller was out of politics.

Bush went without a formal keynote in 2000, splitting the honors between Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and retired Gen. Colin Powell. Senator McCain went on to become his party’s nominee in 2008, but the speech was a footnote, at best, in the rise of an often iconoclastic public figure.

In 2000, Democrats served up then-Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennesee, the youngest member of Congress at the time. Mr. Ford went on to an inspired but eventually unsuccessful run for the Senate – and a much longer career as a contributor to political television programs.

Going further back, check out this helpful POLITICO list. But in looking over the historical record since 1980, there’s not a single keynote address that stands out as a game-changer for anyone save Obama.  

Christie, for his part, described the goal of Tuesday’s speech first in personal terms.

He hopes viewers say, “Yup, that’s him, that’s who I heard about. Seems genuine to me,” as Christie put it on Good Morning America on Tuesday.

But the second part of his goals sounded downright presidential.

“And if they say, ‘I like the vision he’s laid out for the country and for his party for the next four years,’ ” Christie said, “then I will have done my job for my party and my country.”

And that bit of aspirational flourish adds a little truth to Farnsworth’s dictum for politicians: “If you have a choice in politics of being on television in prime time or not,” he says, “you choose being on TV in prime time every time.”

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