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

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 5:42 p.m. MDT

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press) Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

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.

"Jason does a good job," said High. "He's not a talking points politician. He's a content politician."

When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the show to discuss Obama's record, Chaffetz sat quietly, mostly shaking his head.

Afterward, Chaffetz posed for a picture with Emanuel and Gibbs.

"Here's the deal," Emanuel said. "We want to get a poster of this picture and hang it all over Utah."

Chaffetz laughed.

"I teased Rahm afterward, told him, 'I went easy on you,'" he said. "He said, 'I know. I was making sure you didn't get a chance to say anything!' He's a pro that way."

In the arena

Chaffetz, already considered an up-and-comer in the House GOP caucus since coming to Washington in 2009, is fast becoming one. Since signing on as surrogate for Romney last year, he has spent as much time on the campaign trail than at home, learning to love his wheeled, blue-silver carry-on bag and fully refundable airline tickets.

"The hardest part is being away from my family," he said. "I think I spent 30 of the first 35 days of the year on the road. But I love being in the arena. I don't want to be on the sidelines."

As Chaffetz entered the RNC war room at the NASCAR museum, he was informed that Obama's convention-capping speech had just been moved from Bank of America Stadium to Time Warner Arena, ostensibly due to concerns over bad weather.

"On Monday, the Democrats said there was a 100 percent chance the speech would be outside in the football stadium," he said. "Now it's inside. I guess it takes the pressure off them trying to find an extra 50,000 people to attend."

Chaffetz paused, all but licking his lips.

"All of the shows this afternoon will be talking about this," he said. "The Democrats create messes for themselves. When the president gave himself an 'incomplete' grade, we were off to the races with that."

For Chaffetz and other Republican surrogates, three rules apply: Stay on message. Attack opponent's gaffes. Do not, under any circumstances, make gaffes yourself.

According to Chaffetz, the third rule is the toughest to follow — in part because jet-lagged surrogates give dozens of interviews a day; in part because even the smallest verbal misstep can dominate a news cycle.

"Somebody is always saying something stupid, and it's not just Democrats," he said. "In some ways, (being a surrogate) is sort of like the holder. You catch the ball, put it down. Mitt Romney has to make the kick. But if you don't get the hold down? Look out."

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