Ask Sharon Day who she thinks represents the future of the Republican Party, and she can’t stop tossing out names: Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and particularly Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“I like the direction the party’s going, I like what we’re doing, I like the diversity of it, I like the energy," said Day, the co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. "It’s a different kind of energy that we have – it’s a good solid energy, what we’re seeing out there and what’s winning the primaries. It’s exciting."
Republicans gather next week in Tampa, Fla., where the focus will be on their presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But the gathering also serves to showcase some of the party’s rising stars and future leaders.
Many of the up-and-coming Republican leaders are barely in their 40s. All are part of next week’s Republican convention lineup, with Christie as the keynote speaker and Rubio getting the prominent role of introducing Romney. And all also represent the direction that Day and other leaders want the Republican Party to head: Younger, more diverse and shaped by the activism of the tea party. That includes Romney’s pick for vice president: 42-year-old Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
"There’s a noticeable generational shift," said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and a prominent African-American politician who has served on the Republican Party’s platform committee. "If you begin to look at the marquee players, these are folks who are going to be carrying the GOP banner for the next 10 to 20 years."
The convention opens Monday with remarks from two tea party favorites:
– Haley, the 40-year-old South Carolina governor, an Indian-American conservative who backed Romney in her state’s Republican primary and is a potential candidate for president herself someday;
– Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, 49, who also might run for the top job himself with an appeal to the libertarian wing of the party, much as his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has done.
Also speaking Monday: Texas Senate candidate Cruz and Artur Davis, an African-American former Democratic congressman from Alabama who switched to the Republican Party.
On Tuesday, the lineup includes:
– Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Govs. Jindal of Louisiana and Martinez of New Mexico take the stage before Christie’s keynote address.
Jindal, an Indian-American two-term governor and Rhodes scholar, is regarded as a rising star for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and the Gulf oil spill in 2010. Ayotte, 44, served as her state’s attorney general. Both were considered as possible running mates by Romney.
The other rising stars being featured prominently include:
– New Jersey’s Christie, 49, who gives the keynote address on Tuesday. The governor, who turned down repeated appeals to make his own bid for the Republican presidential nomination, brings a straight-talking approach that’s appealing to many rank-and-file Republicans, said Keith Appell, a conservative political strategist. (Day said that Christie won her over when he told state residents to "get the hell off the beach" last year as Hurricane Irene approached his state.)
"He is the master of looking you in the eye and just being blunt," Appell said, adding it’s a skill he thinks only Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, has employed effectively since Obama took office. "There’s been a sense among conservatives for a long time that the Republican leadership in Washington has forgotten how to do that, has lost that quality."
– Rubio, 41, in his first term as a senator from Florida, will introduce Romney. Praise from Republicans is effusive for Rubio, another on the list of potential Romney running mates. "I think when people hear him speak on that stage, they’ll just be blown away," Day said.
Rubio’s presence, though, and that of other minorities, underscores a problem for the Republican ticket. Despite high-profile Latino leaders such as Rubio and Cruz, and women such as Haley and Martinez, Romney continues to poll poorly with Hispanics. He also trails President Barack Obama among women.
Republicans have to make it clear that they are inclusive, said Chris DePino, a former chairman of Connecticut Republican Party.
"Perception is 99 percent of reality," he said. "The more younger, diverse people who represent a particular political party, the better. The impressions that the Republican Party puts forward in this election are very important."
Regardless, Rubio’s speech at the Republican convention could galvanize his position as a national political leader, much as Obama’s speech did when he was a new senator from Illinois introduced to a national audience at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.
"He would have had a prime-time role even if the convention were in Anchorage. He’s just a real rising star among tea party folks, and among conservatives," said Appell, who has close ties to such Republicans.
"His speech is a bit of a milestone, and it’s long overdue," Appell said. "There really is a sense about Rubio that there are bigger and better things in his future. Regardless if Mitt Romney wins or loses, it’s in the party’s interest to feature Rubio now, and get people familiar with him now."