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Upstaged: Why everyone is talking Eastwood, not Romney

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 1:12 PM EDT, Tue September 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Actor Clint Eastwood delivered a 12-minute ad lib to an empty chair during the closing night of the Republican convention
  • Some thought the routine was funny, while others called it bizarre
  • The attention following the address threatens to shift the spotlight away from Romney, the Republican candidate

Tampa (CNN) -- It was supposed to be Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's night.

But instead of basking in the afterglow of what many called a solid acceptance speech, the Romney campaign is now forced to deal with the aftermath of Clint Eastwood's rambling "empty chair" routine at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night.

In case you missed it, the octogenarian delivered a 12-minute ad lib where he unleashed a string of criticisms on an invisible President Barack Obama sitting in an empty chair on stage.

In the process, the actor/director-turned-politician stole Romney's thunder on a night when the Massachusetts governor was supposed to be the headliner.

And that's not good, political watchers say.

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"I thought the idea of an old man talking to a chair was a little weird. The bad part of what happened yesterday is that Clint Eastwood in his own way upstaged Mitt Romney," said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.

Given the narrow window before the Democratic National Convention -- which begins on Tuesday -- Eastwood's performance and the ensuing backlash on social media stole valuable time that the Romney campaign could have used to dominate the media cycle.

"I can't decide if it was amazingly clever or just crazy," said John Geer, chairman of Vanderbilt University's political science department. "Twenty-five percent of it is going to be taken up with the Clint Eastwood speech because it's more interesting."

Laughter, then confusion

When Eastwood walked on stage and began his Obama routine, the convention hall erupted in laughter and applause. Then his performance went viral. There were comments from everyone -- befuddled college kids and armchair pundits as well as snarky replies from celebrities.

"Tomorrow you'll know Romney hit it out of the park when the media spends its time talking about Eastwood," responded conservative radio host Erick Erickson, who is also a CNN contributor.

The Twitter handle "@InvisibleObama" popped up within minutes of Eastwood's address, had more than 20,000 followers within an hour and has had more than 45,000 followers in the past 24 hours.

"I remember when anything was possible. Like 'invisible presidents,'" said one tweet from that account.

However, @InvisibleObama has been so popular that visitors to the page have been greeted throughout the day with a message that said "Account Suspended." Ironically, Twitter accidentally suspended the account likely because an unusual amount of "@" replies -- mentions about the account online -- triggered automatic spam filters.

While Twitter won't comment on specific accounts, @InvisibleObama appears to be sporadically up and running.

No laughing matter

But with just 67 days before Election Day, such distractions are no laughing matter, said CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

"I think it was rambling and I think it was a real mistake by the Romney campaign. I don't understand how they could really let that happen," Borger said after the speech. "I mean, you can't exactly give him the hook when he's -- when he's on the stage, but you have to set parameters."

Romney adviser: Eastwood a 'great messenger'

Senior Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens downplayed the notion that Eastwood's "improv" would be a distraction to the candidate's message.

"The crowd loved it," Stevens said, adding that Romney had been backstage laughing along with the audience. "He thought it was funny."

"For him to go out there and to say that there's a need to change presidents and that he supports Mitt Romney, and talk about 23 million people out of work as he did, and talk about when someone doesn't do their job you need to change, that's a powerful message," Stevens said. "He's a great messenger. The guy is an American treasure."

The U.S. Labor Department, says there are 12.8 million unemployed people, not 23 million.

Eastwood, a longtime Republican, endorsed Romney at an Idaho fundraiser at the beginning of August, where he told reporters that he was backing the GOP presidential candidate "because I think the country needs a boost somewhere."

He endorsed Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. Time Magazine humor columnist Joel Stein weighed in Friday on Eastwood's unscripted address on CNN's "Starting Point" with Soledad O'Brien. "I've been to eight conventions, that is the best moment I've ever been to at a convention," Stein said.

Directed at an empty chair, Stein wonders how the Romney campaign allowed the speech to happen. "They're such a scripted group. ... I'd love to hear the pitch that he made where everyone said, 'Yes, let's do that,'" Stein said.

"You only have a few opportunities in these campaigns to get your message out," said Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. "And we're all sitting here talking about a somewhat crazy moment by Clint Eastwood rather than what was in Mitt Romney's speech."

"I'm not sure it really spoke to the critical issues," added Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Florida. "It was a light moment."

Politicians and others stealing the spotlight or becoming political distractions is nothing new.

Recently, several prominent Republicans have called on Rep. Todd Akin to drop out of the Missouri Senate race after the congressman made statements referring to "legitimate rape," saying that the GOP candidate had become a distraction and liability in the tightly-contested race.

Van Jones, who some say became a distraction himself just before the former Obama administration green jobs czar left the White House in controversy when conservatives linked him to past liberal political statements, offered Eastwood a bit of advice on CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer on Friday.

"I feel his pain. I've been that guy," Jones said. "My advice is, remember, it gets better. It gets better. Tomorrow will come."

CNN political producer Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this report.

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