US nominations not so conventional any more

There was a time when you had to wait until the national convention to see who would win the party's nomination for president. Our columnist James Zogby reports live from Florida.

An anti-GOP protester wears a Guy Fawkes mask, symbol of the occupy movement, during a protest rally in downtown Tampa , Florida.
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TAMPA, Florida // The US political convention season is upon us, but to be honest, the thrill is gone not because conventions are old hat but because they simply aren't what they used to be.

There was a time when you had to wait until the national convention to see who would win the party's nomination for president, or at least who see who would win enough votes to be the vice-presidential candidate. There were smoke-filled rooms where deals were made and intense battles between competing forces over the party's policy platform. There was drama, tension, excitement, and real decisions to be made. Even if they didn't go to the conventions, millions of Americans watched the gavel-to-gavel coverage on television to see what would happen.

For the most part, that's over. For years now, there have been no surprises. Everything is decided well enough in advance to ensure that the conventions can be staged, highly scripted, made-for-television events. The parties don't want surprises. What they want is a days-long free-ride where they define the message they want to send out and dominate the news with their story told their way.

Responding to this state of affairs, the networks, not surprisingly, have balked. This year, for example, the major networks have announced that they will only provide one hour of coverage each night. They know what the game is, and for the most part don't want to be played.

In a sense, the more scripted for television the conventions have become, the less interesting the networks find them to be. And even when they are providing coverage from the convention site, more often than not, viewers are watching network anchors and paid commentators talking to each other about the convention, with the convention itself serving as a mere backdrop to their chatter. Only a few speeches by headliners are actually carried by the television networks in full.

This year, however, despite their best efforts at control, Republicans may find their quadrennial national meeting visited by that dreaded trio of drama, tension and excitement. This might not be the scenario they hoped for and it may not project the messages they sought to convey, but conversely, it may create more interest in their convention.

The unwelcome visit of Hurricane Isaac has already served as a massive distraction. Not only did Isaac force a cancellation of the convention's first day and a re-juggling of the speakers' schedule, it also served as an unwelcome reminder of the the Bush administration's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, the last big storm to hit the Gulf Coast.

The appearance of unity is a major goal of any convention. And here too there may be a surprise or two. Ron Paul may have lost his bid to be the Republican presidential candidate and been denied a speaking role at the convention, but his ardent followers see themselves as less party faithful and more believers in a cause. Some 10,000 of his supporters gathered in Tampa for a Paul-led mini-convention over the weekend.

Many Paul delegates will be at the official party convention and they have two grievances. They are angry at the heavy-handed way that they many other Paul delegates were denied credentials and they will be contesting new rules the party leadership want to pass that will make it more difficult in the future for grassroots candidates to be successful in future primaries. Not only Paul delegates but supporters of Rick Santorum and some leaders of Republican state committees object to this rule change, which they are calling a "power grab" by Team Romney. Said one dissident party official, "it would make the Republican Party a top-down, not bottom-up, party."

A coalition of Ron Paul supporters, conservative activists, and state party officials are planning to mount a floor fight to force a vote on the new rules, which could prove to be a messy, unwanted distracted from the intended display of party unity.
The final unwelcome intrusion may come from the party's own platform. While the final version of the Republican Party platform has yet to ratified, the details that have emerged indicate that the document will be more extreme than candidate Romney would like it to be.

Leaked details on the platform point to extreme language on foreign policy, immigration and monetary policy. Immigration language in the platform largely reflects the views of the architect of Arizona's controversial immigraion law, Kris Kobach. The platform also appears to include a "ban on foreign law" - a common smoke-screen for anti-sharia and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Thus, what is being touted by supporters as the "most conservative platform in history" could potentially grab more headlines than Romney's attempts to reintroduce himself to voters.