I had a decision to make. I'd been in Tampa for all of 15 minutes, and I was already late for something, anything, everything—a white rabbit with OCD, searching for Mad Hatters.
Of course, I knew that the real Republican National Convention would occur far from the klieg lights and sound bites of primetime. At that very moment, Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing an exclusive gig downtown, Log Cabin Republicans were gathering at a bar called the Rusty Pelican and throngs of delegates, dignitaries and media were gaping at bright, shiny things dangled by the Tampa Bay Welcoming Committee at Tropicana Field.
Instead, I opted to drive my Democrat-blue rental car with Rhode Island plates to the gritty outskirts of eastern Tampa for a Tea Party gathering dubbed "Unity Rally 2012." As Hurricane Isaac veered left, I was about to turn hard right.
That's because my focus in Tampa was of a broader scope: to see if there is any room for moderation left or if we are, in fact, in the middle of an ideological civil war. Beg your pardon. An "Ideological War of Northern Aggression." This is the South, after all.
Whether you view the Tea Party as a beacon of light or the heart of darkness, there's no denying that the passionate consortium of pissed-off conservatives represents both the fervent desire for a better future and the philosophical abyss that divides the country's partisans. Virtually every Republican I spoke to during the RNC believes that the Tea Party is unfairly maligned and its key issues (fiscal conservatism, small government, taxes) frequently misrepresented. Liberals see the Tea Party as the end result of conservatives going off their meds en masse. Republicans see a grassroots return to conservative principles.
There was supporting evidence for both arguments at the Unity Rally. Dustin Stockton, chief strategist for TheTeaParty.net, told several hundred attendees—some waving "Don't Tread on Me" flags, others dressed in colonial garb—that "what we're proposing isn't radical; it isn't extreme." He then implied that the U.S. Postal Service should be abolished.
Stockton was preceded by conservative talk-show host Neal Boortz calling Democrats "the looters, the moochers, the parasites" and Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips pulling a Chuck Heston in offering his freedom and liberty to Obama and company "when you pry it from my COLD! DEAD! HANDS!"
What the movement has indisputably done is energize Republicans and accelerate the rise of hardliners like Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul. Speaking to the Unity Rally about the official GOP positioning, Bachmann declared that "the Tea Party is all over that platform." It was a sentiment echoed by the event's keynote speaker, former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who cited vigilance and the unification of conservative voices as the key to defeating Obama.
"Stay informed," Cain implored the crowd solemnly, "because stupid people are ruining America."
Over at the convention, with thousands of khaki-clad law-enforcement, the perimeter was fortified for an invasion. The city had braced for upwards of 5,000 protesters. Instead, they got a whole lot of weak sauce: Ron Paul supporters, bored street kids, a few curbside preachers, two anti-gay groups, some Scientologists and a couple of scattered groups advocating assorted causes. The only protesters to show any balls, so to speak, were Code Pink activists wearing giant vagina costumes.
Inside, it quickly became clear, in the way people chose their words as if it were their last meal, that few were completely enamored with the nominee.
"It's hard to find the perfect candidate," said Jerry T. Miller, a Kentucky delegate and Louisville Metro Council member. "If I could, I'd probably take a quarter of Romney, a quarter of Ron Paul, a quarter of Rick Santorum and maybe a quarter of Newt Gingrich."
That sound you hear is liberals collectively shuddering. Then again, in an era of Super PACs gone wild after being unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, anything is possible in an election where both campaigns will collectively spend more than $2 billion. The role of money became uncomfortably obvious at an event with an open bar when I was randomly introduced to a third-party congressional candidate from a Midwest swing state.
"I'm a journalist," I blurted, recognizing that the candidate was about two drinks past three sheets to the wind.
"Here's what I need from you," she slurred, undeterred. "I need you to get together with your friends and raise $250 to $500 for me, because I need at least $100,000 to even run a shoestring campaign."
If I needed that kind of scratch, I'd be liver-deep in free drinks, too. Luckily for the fledgling politicians in attendance, there was plenty to go around. National conventions represent a golden opportunity for companies, lobbyists, Super PACs and partisan organizations to ply people of influence with everything from gratis Grey Goose to a complimentary Kid Rock concert.
Money is famously a non-issue for Romney. But while unbridled enthusiasm for Romney may be lacking, complete vitriol for Obama—supplemented by the selection of Paul Ryan as the VP nominee and the adoption of a conservative-friendly party platform—is clearly fueling the campaign.
"There has always been a passionate sense of need and urgency to defeat this president," lobbyist Al Cardenas said. "But you also want to be excited about the ticket. I think with the selection of Paul Ryan, the adoption of the platform and that sense of urgency, we're getting a confluence of factors that are really energizing people."
Make no mistake, partisans thrive on red meat. Talk meaningfully about bipartisan compromise and you'll receive irritated silence. Mention 9/11, freedom, the American dream and Barack Hussein Obama in the same sentence and your likeness will be carved into Mt. Rushmore by sundown. George W. Bush may be gone, but you're still either with us or against us.
That much was apparent at a screening of the documentary Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny, part of an RNC film series operated by a company called Citizens United Productions. During the film, the audience cheered when the Gipper intoned, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" and was practically giddy when he said, "There is no substitute for victory." The room was silent when the documentary—narrated by Newt Gingrich and his unblinking wife, Calista—mentioned Reagan's record of achieving across-the-aisle accords.
After the screening, I asked Gingrich, who was on hand to introduce the film and shuck merch, what the bipartisan prospects were for a Romney administration. He echoed the aspirations of a clean Republican sweep in November.
"Look, if we win control of the Senate, he'll be able to put together a majority coalition and there will be a handful of Democrats who will vote with him," Gingrich said. "If that doesn't happen, it's much harder. If Harry Reid is still the majority leader, it is going to be very hard to get things done that we want to get done."