RNC Dispatch: Ann Romney v. Chris Christie on GOP's Softer Side

The Republican Party is having a fight over its identity. It's not the Ron Paul Libertarians vs. a coalition of Wall Street Bankers and religious zealots. It's not Tea Party fanaticism vs. a dying breed of representatives who value bipartisanship. It's not Mitt Romney vs. his entire base, which greeted him with a relatively short ovation in his staged surprise appearance at the end of his wife's speech.

The real battle is between love and respect - as seen in the point-counterpoint between the night's two keynotes: Ann Romney and Chris Christie.

Ann Romney's task was to humanize her husband, offer a glimpse into their lifelong commitment, and expand it as a metaphor for how he'll serve the nation. As one of the longest speeches a woman will deliver throughout the convention, this was also a time to appeal to female voters who are lukewarm on Romney, put off by Ryan, and scared by Santorum.

She tackled this task with a message about love. Her love from Mitt. Their love for their family. The love Republicans have for America. Her love for every member of that audience. Love, love, love. She was bringing a taste of Woodstock to Tampa.

Her speech sought to soften not only her husband, but their party as well. Her delivery was stilted, though most authentic when she described her personal feelings for her husband. Her reference to life being tough for many - as seen in fees for school sports that used to be free - sure sounded like an accidental appeal to increased educational funding. But overall, she did her job: she told the world, "We're not that scary."

The Governor Christie came up to close out the night. Either nobody vetted their two speeches, or someone thought Ann Romney really deserved a rebuttal.

Christie's main theme was that it was better to be respected than loved. He promised blunt truths. They took the form of accusing Democrats of divisive scare tactics, suggesting that Obama only follows the polls, and claiming he'd better advocate for teachers than unions would. Like a blunt instrument, smashed around without much precision, without piercing beneath the surface and with a lot of pounding. And one of the recipients of that pounding was Ann Romney's whole message.

This isn't just a conflict between speech-writers, or even between the candidates vying for 2012 and those jockeying for 2016. This is a real division in the party.

In 2000, George W. Bush succeeded with the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism . In 2010, the Tea Party animated a landslide with take-no-prisoners extremism. While many Republicans will voice the need for new revenue to strengthen public funding of inclusive social programs, they are drowned out by Paul Ryan and his caucus that gleefully calls for a Draconian budget. There are conservatives who suggest a bigger tent of the sort that Reagan cultivated; and others who use racial code and fear mongering to target immigrants, gays, women and people of color lest they be accused of loving anyone.

In invoking their commitment to charity - with the humorously self-unaware humblebrag that they never talk about all their generosity - Ann Romney was speaking from the heart. She believes it's her role as a wealthy American to give to causes she believes in - such as Planned Parenthood, which she supported as First Lady of Massachusetts. In her particular way, she wants to show the world she loves.

And now, Mitt Romney may have to choose between his wife and the man he supposedly wanted as his running mate; between his own patrician qualities of noblesse oblige, and the harsher populist energies of the party he has chosen; between love and respect.

Sadly, for Mitt, right now it doesn't seem like he has much of either from his own party. Romney was virtually absent from his own Convention, even ironically after he arrived in the room. When a series of Governors spoke about job creation, it wasn't about jobs Romney had created in the private sector or as Governor of Massachusetts. When Santorum segued from economic themes to socially conservative red meat, he was voicing views on choice and marriage that he knows the Presidential nominee is more muted on. As Rachel Maddow pointed out, Christie spent the 1,800 words of his 2,600 word speech before mentioning the man they'd gathered to nominate.

Mitt received little respect and less love during his Convention's opening night - and the conflicting speeches show that his campaign hasn't determined which he'll be seeking from the American public this November. So far it's a recipe to get neither. But last night we did learn that if voters don't choose him, he'll be OK: in addition to extraordinary wealth and good health, he will still have love and respect at home from a woman who truly adores him as he is…whoever, in fact, he turns out to be.