Social media voices help shape images of convention speakers

Backlash erupts over criticism of Ann Romney

The wrath of the sisterhood has befallen TV pundit Juan Williams, whose post-speech attack Tuesday night on Ann Romney has toasted what little credibility he had with much-needed female voters who see the potential first lady — a cancer survivor and mother of five — as real and heroic.

Even as she took to the stage last night to sparkle in a red shirt dress, a pitch perfect sartorial rendering for a prime-time audience that does more of its shopping at Target than Neiman Marcus, her message that she and presidential hopeful hubby Mitt Romney have struggled on the way to their success was savaged by Mr. Williams‘ odd and classist spew.

“It looks like a woman whose husband takes care of her, and she’s been very lucky and blessed in this life,” Mr. Williams said on Fox News after labeling her critically as a “corporate wife.”

“She did not convince me that, you know what? I understand the struggles of American women in general,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Williams‘ quick attack, amid oodles of praise for Mrs. Romney, who is not a professional speaker, from the Twitterverse and blogosphere, shows the verbal tightrope walk that political speakers face as they offer comments that can help shape public images.

“I think the speeches matter if they are stunning. If they are middling or terrible, I don’t think they make a whole lot of difference,” said Tampa, Fla., political consultant and writer Wayne Garcia, who teaches at the University of South Florida.

“For Mitt Romney, his speech is critical. He has the opportunity to change the narrative and get it off of his past and his wealth. It will either launch him into the next level and get him out of the swamp he is in, or he’ll fail miserably and get him into more trouble. But even if he has as a terrible speech, he’s not dead. He just has to work that much harder.”

The Williams quips stunned TV colleagues, who challenged his reaction even before social media responses exploded.

“Is that the same speech you heard, Brit?” host Brett Baier queried of Brit Hume, the network’s senior political analyst.

“I think that was the single most effective political speech I’ve ever heard given by a political wife,” Mr. Hume shot back. “I think a lot of women find her utterly admirable and utterly credible.”

Ron Sachs, the dean of public relations in Florida and a longtime observer of national politics, says the job of a speechwriter is a miserable avocation for some, requiring the writer to create language that is authentic to the speaker’s voice.

But, he said, “A well-written speech is only half of the equation. You’ve got to deliver it.” Those who deliver it well can serve to crystallize a moment and in a political convention “define the night,” Mr. Sachs said.

From his perspective, “Ann Romney won the night” on Tuesday, outshining even the Republican keynote speaker, a sitting governor who was the subject of much vice presidential speculation.

“Chris Christie had some great sound bites but fell short of the kind of rhetoric he is renowned for,” Mr. Sachs said. “He didn’t do a good job relating his achievements to the ability of the Republican Party, of Mitt Romney, to do similar things for the country. By the speech’s most important measure, Ann Romney widened the appeal of Mitt Romney to Democrats and independents. Ann Romney made her husband more mainstream than ever.”

With the immediacy of Twitter and social media, the backlash and political reaction to Wednesday’s speech will be immediate. But they remain an important barometer in the court of public opinion and the electorate.

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