We might not quite say that San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro made himself an instant star with his keynote speech Tuesday night. It wandered in a couple of spots, and while the ideas soared, a lot of the rhetoric did not. But we can certainly say that he towered over that pulpy blowhard Chris Christie, and he did what a modern keynoter is supposed to do—he sounded the themes, he attached the themes to the candidate, and he lit hard into the other guys. And he wasn't alone--the theme of the night was that the Democrats are ready to fight and are, contrary to conventional wisdom, pretty pumped up.
There was a rote feeling to the first eight or 10 minutes of Castro’s speech. His is an admirable story, obviously, rising from poverty to Stanford and Harvard Law. But it felt a bit perfunctory. He was losing the crowd, getting those “okay, we recognize that this is supposed to be an applause line” ovations.
But then, when he shifted gears to attack mode, he started to catch fire. The line about Mitt Romney being “a good guy, but he doesn’t know how good he’s had it” was a tight and economical expression of part of the case against Romney. If he’d said “out of touch rich guy,” it would have been leaden. But the simple act of finding a different and slightly clever way to say it allowed the people in the crowd and watching on television to make the connection themselves, rather than having it made for them, and there’s always a delight and spontaneity in that.
But he really nailed it on Romney and health care with that little trick he played. It was nicely set up—Romney says “no” to the middle class and women’s rights and gay marriage and health…”Well, actually, Mitt Romney said yes to health care.” A great line, and technically off message. Democrats have decided, at the high strategy levels, to attack Romney as a right-winger, not a flip-flopper, because they’ve determined, and probably defensibly, that the flip-flopper charge might just remind swing voters that Romney used to be and might really be a moderate. But there’s a way to level that charge that just makes Romney look weak and foolish, and Castro pulled it off. That’s an oratorical skill that I’d guess a lot of mayors who’ve never been on the national stage probably don’t have.
Finally, of course, and the biggest difference between Castro and Christie, is that Castro took about two minutes to mention the candidate, whereas Christie took 17. But in some ways the more important contrast for Castro is not with Christie but with New Mexico Republican Governor Susanna Martinez. She represented the GOP’s major play for Latino sympathy. And she gave a terrific speech, but Castro outpointed her—a touch more charisma and optimism, and a harder edge that gave the crowd more to whoop about and that laid out the November choice in stark terms. Whoever picked that guy picked well.
I’ll leave Michelle Obama’s fantastic and deft and nuanced speech to others. It was one for the ages. But as to the rest of the night, the headliners were strong almost top to bottom. The only weak spot was Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. He wasn’t terrible. At least he offered a full-throated defense of the president, and that was striking tonight: We usually see Democrats on TV half-apologizing for Obama and his policies. But not tonight. It suggests that this week is going to be combative and unapologetic, and that’s good. But O’Malley somehow offered a lot more icing than cake. After he finished, Steve Schmidt said on MSNBC that he felt he’d just seen—and everyone knows of O’Malley’s presidential ambitions—“a future HHS secretary.”
The surprise of the night? Deval Patrick. Where did that come from? Maybe he does that all the time and those of us outside Massachusetts don’t know it, but that was just an amazing delivery. Patrick—like O’Malley, but far, far more effectively—raised the roof in defense of Obama. And the crowd went nuts. It showed conviction, and conviction works. Conviction worked with former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, too--a speech so full of barbs that it was almost too much even for me. I would bet my mortgage that Romney and Karl Rove and other Republican big-shot operatives were surprised by the conviction they saw tonight. A curve ball they didn’t expect.
In sum, a much stronger first night than the Republicans’. Better orchestrated. Better speeches. And far more excitement in the hall for the candidate. What was that about the “enthusiasm gap” the Democrats are suffering from, which has been conventional wisdom for months, or actually a couple of years? As of last night, the enthusiasm gap is quickly morphing into something that Mitt Romney needs to worry about.