25 Aug 2012

Wooing women – prime time at the Republican Convention

It’s not easy being a Republican woman right now, what with the Todd Akin rape scandal, a hardline abortion platform and gaping gender gap to overcome. Can the convention help turn things around?

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Hurricane Isaac isn’t the only storm threatening to overshadow the Republican convention when it opens this weekend in Tampa, Florida. With unfortunate timing, the Republicans have been plunged into a political firestorm over their policies – and attitudes – on women. All this, at a time when Mitt Romney was hoping to project a new, softer, more approachable face of his party.

Millions of dollars have been spent on this five-day extravaganza, a heady mixture of hoop-la and ideology, image making and message control, speeches and balloons. More than seventy speakers have been confirmed: although the vast majority are white men, and just over a quarter are women.

But the Republicans argue that they’re giving prime time billing to some of their rising female stars. Plus of course, every Republican’s favourite woman, Ann Romney, whose address has been shifted to Tuesday night after organisers found out that its original slot was not destined to be televised. And the party is seeking serious ratings for her efforts to make husband Mitt look – well – real.

Preparations for RNC in Tampa (getty)

But three more overtly political women have also been given big-ticket slots, as the Republicans seek to overcome the tide of hostile publicity surrounding the Todd Akin rape remarks, and leaks about their hardline anti-abortion stance in the party’s 2012 platform.

Olympia Snowe, who is retiring from Congress after eighteen years, fed up with the increasingly macho tenor of debate, has urged Mitt Romney to get serious about the GOP’s gender problem – telling him he must “work to overcome what others in our party have done to undermine our standing among women, and he must restore the image of who we are as Republicans”.

So step forward, four keynote speakers. One is already a household name: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Her name was briefly bandied around as a possible vice-presidential running mate, although she scotched the rumours pretty effectively, insisting: “How many ways can I say it? Not me”.

Fresh from her triumph at becoming the first woman to become a member of the Augusta National, GOP bigwigs are hoping she will provide a much-needed note of diversity and foreign-policy clout.

Female high flyers

But there are other senior women on the bill too. On opening night, South Carolina’s first female governor Nikki Haley will get a rare chance to address a national audience. Her aides say she will focus on her own life story as the child of Indian immigrants, along with her political differences with President Obama. In the past, she hasn’t been shy of asserting her feminity, insisting that her high heels are a weapon in the “blood sport” of her state’s poltiics.

However, Governor Haley, who was propelled to power with the backing of Tea Party activists, has fairly hardline views on rape and abortion herself. She famously vetoed a move to donate half a million dollars to rape crisis centres, and was criticised for describing rape victims as one of the “special interests”trying to wring money out of her budget.

Perhaps fellow governor Susana Martinez might prove a less divisive draw. She’s only been in office for two years, but made headlines from the start by becoming the first Latina to be elected to any gubernatorial office – and unlike Haley, she has one of the highest approval ratings in the country. She too has a compelling personal story: grandparents from Mexico, and a sister with cerebral palsy who she and her husband care for themselves.

And then there’s Kelly Ayotte, a first-term senator for New Hampshire who was also mooted as a potential VP choice. Just 44, with two young children, she is also staunchly pro-life with unapologetic conservative views. She’ll feature on Tuesday night, with a speech focusing on the role of small businesses in rebuilding the economy.

Obama team fight back

Of course the Democrats won’t be letting the Republicans hog all the airtime. First Lady Michelle Obama will appear on the Late Show with David Letterman right in the middle of convention week. And the Obama campaign is planning a whole series of events around the country aimed at women voters. Just to make sure no-one misses the point, they’re calling it the “Romney-Ryan: Wrong for Women” tour.

It’ll kick off with a “Women Vote 2012 Summit” in Las Vegas, featuring top White House advisors and – for added star power – the film actor Natalie Portman. On top of that, the Democrats have announced a host of high profile women speakers at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the beginning of next month.

They may not be on the presidential ticket. But the good news is, that this year women are definitely not just the warm-up act.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News