Surrogates, including Utah's Jason Chaffetz, play high-stakes game of political football

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As a placekicker for the Brigham Young University football team, Jason Chaffetz loved nothing better than lining up in an opponent's stadium, drilling the ball through the uprights and hearing the assembled throngs fall silent.

Small wonder, then, that the second-term Republican congressman from Utah relishes his role as a Mitt Romney surrogate at the Democratic National Convention here this week, pressing his party's electoral case behind rival political lines.

"It's riskier, politically," Chaffetz said. "But I love it. It's sort of my inner placekicker coming out. When you go out (to kick) in front of 65,000 people and they're yelling and screaming and swearing at you, you can't let it faze you. It's the same thing here."

For Democrats, this week's convention is nothing short of a political Super Bowl: part partisan infomercial, part jamboree, an opportunity to meet, greet and put a collective best foot forward to the national electorate.

For Republicans, by contrast, the event is a juicy, target-rich environment — an opportunity to poke and prod, issue rebuttals, and generally make like the snarky Stadler and Waldorf from "The Muppet Show."

Mimicking a similar Democratic effort at the GOP convention in Tampa last week, the Republican National Committee has set up a temporary base camp at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, located across the street from the Charlotte Convention Center and a few blocks from Time Warner Arena where President Obama will accept his party's nomination Thursday night.

While the RNC delivers critical daily news conferences from a studio decorated with a stock car advertising Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, the round-the-clock, boots-on-the-studio-floor work of cheerleading the Republican ticket while tsk-tsking President Obama largely falls to surrogates such as Chaffetz.

Following Michelle Obama's Tuesday night speech, Chaffetz criticized the president's economic policies on Fox News; six hours later, he was sparring with Democratic Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy on a CNN morning show.

"You just have to be immensely flexible," Chaffetz said. "Ready to roll. You don't want to let (Democrats) make over-the-top assertions without a response. I'm here to offer a little perspective."

Enemy territory

When Chaffetz arrived at CNN's studio Wednesday morning, network producer Shannon High was on hand to greet him.

"Good morning," High said. "We have a great panel for you. Governor Malloy is here. (Obama adviser) Robert Gibbs is here."

Chaffetz grinned.

"I am deep in enemy territory," he said.

In Tampa, Chaffetz addressed GOP delegate breakfast meetings alongside Tagg Romney and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, making a positive case for Romney.

In Charlotte, he's tasked with being a spoiler — ruining the surrounding Democratic fiesta, and doing so with a cheery disposition.

"(Speaker of the House) John Boehner once told me to disagree without being disagreeable," Chaffetz said. "That's important, especially here.

"I was walking around downtown the other day, past an SUV. They rolled down the window and I heard them say, 'Utah, Utah!' I looked back and it was Jesse Jackson Sr. He says, 'Hey, how you doing?' There were five or six people with him. I shook all their hands."

Trading verbal jabs with on air, Chaffetz gave as good as he got. When Malloy touted job creation during Obama's presidential term, Chaffetz countered with unemployment statistics; when Gibbs praised the Obama administration's record on financial regulation, Chaffetz argued that the banking system now contains greater systemic risk.

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