TAMPA, Fla. -- For a candidate seeking to unseat an incumbent commander in chief, there are few opportunities more important than that first nationally televised speech as a presidential nominee; a unique opportunity to speak not just to the core of the party, but to voters all across the country.
When Mitt Romney delivers his acceptance speech Thursday night in Tampa, he’ll be following the footsteps of previous presidential challengers, who either inspired or alienated voters with their convention addresses.
For the many Americans who pay only occasional attention to the presidential campaign, Romney will have the chance to demonstrate who he is, what he believes, and where he hopes to lead the nation.
Previous candidates who, like Romney, were trying to defeat an incumbent have delivered acceptance speeches which fall into several types; some of which Romney will surely avoid.
Unapologetic and defiant
When Sen. Barry Goldwater, R- Ariz., won the Republican nomination in 1964, he refused to camouflage or retreat from his conservative beliefs. His speech to the convention in San Francisco was perhaps the most uncompromising in American political history.
A grim-looking Goldwater told the crowd, “The good Lord raised this mighty Republic to be a home for the brave and to flourish as the land of the free, not to stagnate in the swampland of collectivism, not to cringe before the bully of communism.”
For Republican moderates who were alarmed by Goldwater’s threats of using nuclear weapons and his musings about ending Social Security, he had a message: go elsewhere. “Those who do not care for our cause, we don't expect to enter our ranks in any case,” he said.
The convention had been roiled by a party platform fight over condemning the John Birch Society and other groups called “extremist” by the media. Goldwater took on the controversy directly with his famous lines: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
None of this helped Goldwater in his uphill battle against President Lyndon Johnson, but in all likelihood Goldwater was going to lose the election anyway. Goldwater’s speech did at least provide one model of how to go down to defeat in the most defiant way.
Although not quite as hard-edged as Goldwater’s speech, 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole’s acceptance speech also had a stern tone. Dole denounced officials in President Bill Clinton’s administration as "a corps of elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered, and never learned ... ."
He promised to be the nation’s toughest cop: "If I win, the lives of violent criminals are going to be hell,” he vowed to pursue terrorists “to the ends of the earth" and he said, “We should not have here a single illegal immigrant … .”
Candid, sincere, populist ... and ill-timed
In 1984, by the time Democratic challenger Walter Mondale spoke to his party’s convention in San Francisco, the signs were clear that the economy had recovered from its worst recession since World War II and that incumbent President Ronald Reagan would be hard to beat.
Mondale -- the leader of a party that had never made fiscal austerity its central creed -- chose to offer himself as a truth teller and fiscal hawk, pledging to reduce the budget deficit by two-thirds.
“Here's the truth about the future: We are living on borrowed money and borrowed time,” he warned. “These deficits hike interest rates, clobber exports, stunt investment, kill jobs, undermine growth, cheat our kids, and shrink our future.”
He predicted that “Whoever is inaugurated in January,” the tax burden would go up. “Anyone who says they won't is not telling the truth to the American people.” He added, “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.”
Mondale also mixed in a dose of typical Democratic populism of the kind still heard today: “To the corporations and the freeloaders who play the loopholes and pay no taxes, my message is: Your free ride is over.”
This did not prove to be an inspiring message to the voters: Mondale lost every state but his own, Minnesota.
Also falling into the category of candid, sincere, and populist -- but even worse timed -- was the 1972 speech of Democratic candidate George McGovern.
Bad convention management and fractious delegates meant that McGovern did not get to deliver his speech until 2:45 a.m. ET -- unthinkable, even suicidal, by today’s TV standards.
For those who couldn’t stay awake, Chalmers Roberts of The Washington Post summed it up: “A rousing speech, delivered with fervor as well as verve.” To Democrats angry about President Richard Nixon continuing the war in Vietnam, McGovern pledged, “I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on Inauguration Day.” He never got the chance, going down in a landslide defeat that November.
Populist and homey
In New York in 1992, Bill Clinton delivered his acceptance speech just hours after Ross Perot said he was withdrawing from the presidential race, a decision Perot later reversed. Clinton appealed to Perot voters to join the Democrats and then uncorked a smoothly delivered populist appeal with themes much like those of Mondale in 1984.
"I was raised to believe that the American Dream was built on rewarding hard work," he said. "But folks in Washington have turned that American ethic on its head. For too long, those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft. And those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded."
Clinton said of his opponent George H.W. Bush, "He raised taxes on the people who drive pick-up trucks and lowered taxes on people who ride in limousines."
He concluded with a personal touch about the Arkansas town where he grew up -- and the line most people today remember: "I end tonight where it all began for me," he said. "I still believe in a place called Hope."
The gesture, more than the words
You may not remember many of the phrases in 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry’s convention speech, but you probably do recall how he began that speech -- coming out, saluting to the crowd, and declaring, “I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty.”
The theme of Kerry’s campaign against President George W. Bush was that Kerry’s national security credentials were impeccable because he’d served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. As a combat veteran he would cede nothing to Bush on patriotism.
“As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war,” he said, as he pledged to “bring our allies to our side and share the burden” and “reduce the risk to American soldiers. That's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home.”
Not memorable but no matter …
Then there are those acceptance speeches which in the end aren’t that memorable -- but don’t matter because the challenger scores his rhetorical victory in a fall debate.
Reagan’s acceptance speech at the 1980 GOP convention isn’t remembered today as one of his greatest. It did what you’d expect -- it challenged the incumbent president Jimmy Carter and his record.
He asked, ''Can anyone compare the state of our economy when the Carter administration took office with where we are today and say, 'Keep up the good work?' Can anyone look at our reduced standing in the world today and say, 'Let's have four more years of this?' ''
More decisive was the side-by-side comparison of the self-assured Reagan with his dour opponent in the sole debate the two men had one week before the election.