Md. pols steeped in Tampa's surrogate battle

TAMPA, Fla. —Former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. rushed through a convention hall that holds more than 15,000 journalists to get to an interview about why Republican nominee Mitt Romney should be elected president.

Across town, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley was telling a room packed with cameras and national political reporters why that same nominee would be a disaster for the nation's economy.

As delegates went through the formal process of nominating their candidate at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, much of the messaging that will actually reach voters back home was taking place offstage as an army of political surrogates threw jabs and deflected counterpunches under the glare of studio lights.

A handful of Maryland politicos are key players in that effort.

"Today you have everybody with a camera and everybody is a blogger — cyberspace has changed the nature of conventions," said Ehrlich, who arrived here Monday. "Everything is coordinated up on stage, but because there's so many media outlets, surrogates have become more important."

After abbreviating the first day of the convention over concerns about Tropical Storm — now Hurricane — Isaac, Republicans got their formal program under way Tuesday. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Romney's wife, Ann, were among the speakers lined up to address delegates late Tuesday.

Romney officially won his party's nomination, a largely symbolic gesture that convention organizers moved up in part so Republicans could focus instead on delivering the messages they hope will carry the GOP ticket to the White House.

Romney will address the convention on Thursday, its final night.

But as leading Republicans delivered formal remarks inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, much-less-scripted scenes played out in the halls and meeting rooms of the nearby convention center. Republicans estimate that surrogates will be interviewed 6,000 to 7,000 times this week. And those interviews take on added significance as television networks pare back live coverage of political conventions.

Though still new to politics, Maryland Republican Senate candidate Daniel Bongino quickly lined up several media appearances, including on CNN and Al Jazeera. Between interviews Tuesday, Bongino was roaming around "radio row, " a string of booths from which the nation's radio talk show hosts are conducting live broadcasts and interviews.

The former Secret Service agent and first-time candidate is ostensibly here to support the party's presidential nominee, but he noted that the exposure is also important for his own campaign. Bongino is running to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin.

"Every time we go on the air, we always get donors, we get social media 'likes,'" Bongino said. "We understood from the start that we had to make this race national."

The surrogate effort, of course, isn't limited to Republicans — even at their own convention.

O'Malley, who has been acting as a Democratic surrogate for months as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, joined Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a news conference focused on Romney's time at Bain Capital.

He also spoke to a half-dozen radio stations broadcasting into Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and other politically important states. Aides said he returned to Maryland on Tuesday.

The foray into Republican territory came as O'Malley is preparing for a prominent speaking role at the Democratic convention in Charlotte next week, an address that has added to speculation about his own national political ambitions in 2016.

"Romney economics would spell disaster for America's middle class," the governor said at the event, organized by the Democratic National Committee. "The lessons he learned as a corporate buyout specialist were not lessons that should be applied to a national economy."

Maryland delegates attending the convention — including several state lawmakers — held an impromptu news conference to counter O'Malley. House of Delegates Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said he thought the governor's appearance in Tampa lowered the civility of state politics.

"This governor has raised taxes excessively on Marylanders [and] has lost jobs at a higher rate than any other state in the nation," O'Donnell told a group of reporters, most if not all of whom were from Maryland. "For him to come down here to criticize our leaders at our convention is very troubling to us."

Republicans nationally have made the economy the central thrust of their effort to beat Obama. A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week showed seven in 10 voters considered the president's handling of the economy a significant factor in this election.

The poll, published Monday, found 54 percent of respondents disapproved of the president's efforts. It showed Romney leading Obama by a single percentage point in the race, which was within its margin of error.

"President Obama and his advisers have a clear message for Americans struggling in the Obama economy: it could be worse," Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement. "But with half of recent college graduates unemployed or underemployed and consumer confidence plummeting to a nine-month low, it's clear that things can't get much worse for middle-class families."