Tampa Bay Times’s convention-eve welcome

The paper’s Sunday piece is strong (cringe-making Florida boosterism aside)

TAMPA — Wince. That was my first reaction as I started to read a Sunday story about the Republican National Convention by Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith and Politico national political editor Charles Mahtesian.

It began as if written by a copy writer for the marketing department of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Welcome to Florida, Republican conventioneers.

Let’s not mince words: You are in the most important state in America.

You already know this is America’s biggest battleground and that if Mitt Romney loses our 29 electoral votes Barack Obama is almost certainly re-elected. But with Florida it’s more than that.

This is a mega state so diverse that it mirrors the nation’s moods, sentiments and demographics. Florida is America—today’s America and tomorrow’s.

“It’s become a nation-state, just as New York and California were at their peak and Ohio was a century ago,” said historian Richard Norton Smith, a venerable chronicler of American politics.

Frankly, if I did not already know that Smith is one of Florida’s best political writers I might have stopped there. Fortunately, while the over-the-top prose continued to pop up occasionally, Smith and Mahtesian quickly redeem themselves with a well-written and informative piece that outshines most of the competition.

Smith and Mahtesian offer valuable nuggets such as these:

Florida remains the consistent, supersized nail-biter in presidential elections and no Republican since Calvin Coolidge has won the White House without winning Florida.

In the past five contests, Republicans won twice, Democrats twice and they essentially tied in 2000.

Floridians have cast more than 32.5 million votes since 1992 and 52,000 votes—1 percent—separated the Republican and Democratic candidates.

It’s easy to lose sight of Florida’s sheer size. Two time zones, 10 TV markets, 58,000 square miles, 19 million people.

Driving from Key West to Pensacola is akin to driving from Washington, D.C., to Madison, Wis.

Tampa Bay, the top battleground region in the biggest battleground state, has roughly the same number of voters as Colorado or Arizona. The West Palm Beach media market — third-largest in Florida—has roughly the same number of voters as Nevada.

The reporters go on to touch on the issues that affect Florida (Medicare, immigration, housing—“Name a pressing issue facing the country and Florida is ground zero,” they write) and the deep differences among the state’s starkly different regions, all to explain “why the fascinating state of Florida,” as their headline has it, was selected to host the convention. “[T]he way Romney is introduced to America from the Tampa Bay Times Forum,” conclude Smith and Mahtesian, “the way the rhetoric this week is framed on the economy, entitlements and diversity, could be pivotal to how Florida votes.” (The framing of rhetoric this week—and what reporters do with it—will be of particular interest to the Swing States Project.)

Unfortunately, other Florida newspapers over the weekend seemed, with the convention upon us, at a loss to find a different angle on a story that has dominated the state’s political reporting for most of the year.

The Tampa Tribune decided to focus on Florida’s struggling economy for one of its front page stories about the convention. While interesting to folks who may be reading about this issue for the first time—and one wonders who that might be—the story broke no new ground.

Some newspapers—News Press (Fort Myers), Daytona Beach News Journal, Sun Sentinel, and the Miami Herald (it used a below-the-fold version of the Smith/Mahtesian story)—pulled the plug on front page convention coverage or sharply reduced it for their Sunday editions, giving way to news about Tropical Storm/Hurricane Isaac.

It is not easy to distinguish yourself in the frenetic environment of 21st Century convention reporting. Far too often political coverage (particularly during convention weeks) is hurried and trite. The Tampa Bay Times and Politico have started this week off well by keeping their reporting fresh and interesting—even if they occasionally made me wince.

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.