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Ann Romney stole the show on opening night

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Wed August 29, 2012
Ann Romney's speech drew cheers from the audience at the Republican National Convention.
Ann Romney's speech drew cheers from the audience at the Republican National Convention.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: Ann Romney got the best reviews on the first night of the RNC
  • He says she wowed the crowd, but will her speech gain new voters for Mitt Romney?
  • Gergen: Paul Ryan faces task of pleasing the party's base and appealing to a wider audience
  • He says younger leaders are looking beyond Romney for future top candidates

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Some quick thoughts from Tampa just before the Republicans raise the curtain on their second night:

Did Ann move the needle?

While some offer dissent, there is general agreement across the political spectrum that Ann Romney stole the show on opening night. Brit Hume at Fox News said she gave the most effective speech he had ever heard from a political wife -- and remembering star turns from Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Barbara and Laura Bush, that is saying a lot. John Cassidy of the New Yorker wrote, "The night belonged to Ann Romney, and she aced it." From the CNN skybox, I tweeted, "In 2004, Barack Obama was born as a national star at the Democratic convention. Tonight it was Ann Romney's turn."

David Gergen
David Gergen

The question now becomes: Did she move the needle for her husband? A few have speculated that she could have lifted his numbers by 4 percentage points. The truth is that we won't know until the numbers come in, but my hunch is, there won't be an obvious bounce. Rather, what she did is to prompt a whole lot of wavering voters to take a second look at her husband Thursday night. That is a huge contribution in a race this tight ... but it is still up to him to close the sale.

Opinion: Ann Romney did great, but won't move needle

What must Paul Ryan deliver?

The pressure is on Paul Ryan on Wednesday night to do even more than Ann Romney. From a GOP perspective, he is the one who has to keep the base fired up with hard-edged conservatism even as he persuades independents and disillusioned Democrats that they can be comfortable with him as the ideological leader of a Romney presidency.

Ann Romney: Talking to you from my heart
Analysis: Ann Romney, Christie speeches

That won't be an easy rope to tread, but Ryan has managed it well. The Romney campaign was drifting badly when Ryan came aboard and has since righted itself. It is true, as analysts like Ezra Klein have written, that Ryan hasn't provided a big lift in national polls, but he has brought a new vitality -- not only to the party (just wait for the hall to erupt Wednesday night when he is introduced) but to Romney himself. And he has put not only Wisconsin in play but possibly more of the upper Midwest.

Meanwhile, the downsides that Republican strategists worried so much about when he was named haven't materialized. Democratic attacks on his Medicare ideas, for example, don't seem to be cutting much (perhaps the Democratic convention will change that?). And for some, Ryan's youthful good looks add a little sex appeal.

But on Wednesday, he will be on the biggest stage in his life. Those in the hall will want red meat, far more than they got from Chris Christie on Tuesday night, but many in his television audience will be deciding whether they want him at the center of national power -- and only a heartbeat from the presidency. A difficult assignment. This will be the second most important speech of the convention.

An election between two transitional candidates?

There has been an unmistakable air in Tampa that even as they work for victory, leading Republicans are looking over Romney's shoulder, asking who will be out front if he loses. Christie's much-anticipated speech Tuesday night has drawn scorn because he seemed to be auditioning for himself for 2016. He wasn't giving a keynote, the joke goes, but an acceptance. Rick Santorum's speech, while better, was also less about Romney than his own views. And of course, tensions are running high between Ron Paul and his followers vs. the Romney team.

All of this is now coalescing into a narrative on full display in an insightful piece by Jonathan Martin in Politico. Martin writes that supporters of up-and-coming 40-somethings -- from Ryan to Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz -- increasingly see themselves as the true heirs of an upbeat, Reagan-style conservatism and that Romney, at 65, is a more of a placeholder, win or lose.

That mood could change over the next two days -- Romney has a self-interest in changing it -- but if it holds, it will add a new dimension to the 2012 election. As he bids for a second term, Barack Obama faces the prospect that if even if he wins, as a lame duck president, power will begin to seep away a couple of years from now. That goes with the territory.

So, in a fundamental way, history may one day record that an Obama-Romney race was actually a contest between two transitional figures.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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