LITTLE ROCK — The selection of U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin as a speaker at the Republican National Convention is an indication that the national party sees him as a rising star, political observers say.
Griffin was invited to address GOP delegates Monday, opening day of the convention in Tampa, Fla., but on Saturday the Republican National Committee announced Monday’s events had been postponed because of Tropical Storm Isaac. It was not immediately clear when or if Griffin would speak, but the invitation was seen as sign the party has hopes for the first-term congressman from Little Rock.
"With either party, when they tab these people it shows that they are people who are within the party thought of as up-and-comers, people who are on the bench and people that they want to put forward and give a national platform to as sort of the future of their party," said Anthony Nownes, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Griffin has come a long way since saying in a tearful 2007 speech at the Clinton School of Public Service that public service was "not worth it." He gave the speech shortly after resigning as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas amid controversy over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys by then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The fired U.S. attorneys, including Bud Cummins of Arkansas, were replaced under a provision of the Patriot Act that allowed their replacements to bypass Senate confirmation. The Senate later repealed that provision, and the inspector general for the Justice Department eventually concluded that the firings appeared to be political but that no crime had occurred.
White House emails showed that Karl Rove, with whom Griffin had served as an aide to President George W. Bush, had lobbied for Griffin to get the job.
Three years later, Griffin defeated Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott to win Arkansas’ 2nd District congressional seat following the retirement of Democrat Vic Snyder, who had held the seat for 14 years.
An early endorser of Mitt Romney during the GOP presidential primary race, Griffin was picked to chair Romney’s campaign in Arkansas. He was on hand when Romney came to Little Rock last week for a private fundraiser that raked in over $2 million, which according to the Romney campaign was the largest Republican fundraiser in Arkansas history.
Griffin said last week it was "very exciting and just an honor" to be asked to speak at the GOP convention. He said he would collaborate with the convention’s organizers on his speech, but he had some ideas for it.
"I want to focus on job creation," he said. "I’d like to talk about the Keystone pipeline if possible."
Giving Griffin a spot at the national convention may be the party’s way of testing him, said Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
"It may be that party leaders are trying to put him up in prime time to see how well he does with the pressure and the spotlight," he said.
Overby noted that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both gained heightened visibility with appearances at national party conventions. But the national spotlight can also be damaging to a politician who is not ready for it, he said, recalling that when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindall gave a televised rebuttal to Obama’s first address to Congress as president, his speech fell flat.
Clinton managed to rebound from an a long, uninspired speech at the 1988 Democratic convention which drew the biggest ovation when he said, "… in conclusion." He turned the incident in his favor by joking about it on late-night talk shows.
"You just don’t know who’s going to catch fire, who’s going to blossom under the spotlight and who’s going to wilt under the spotlight," Overby said.
Griffin, who turned 44 on Tuesday, appears to be the likeliest of Arkansas’ Republican congressmen to become a star of the party, said Art English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
English said Griffin is strongly favored to win re-election against Democrat Herb Rule in November, and he has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor or a possible candidate for governor in 2014.
"Politicos know him as a Rove protege, they know him as an early commitment to Romney, they know him as a strong fiscal conservative who’s been talking about these issues right along," English said. "(He is) also known as a sharp political operative. Obviously this is a guy with a future."
Rule, a 74-year-old Little Rock lawyer, was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of drunken-driving but has vowed to fight the charge and remain in the race.
Rule said Griffin apparently has been "anointed" by the GOP to run for another office in the future. He said Arkansans deserve better.
"I think the people of Arkansas are looking for someone who works for them, not an obstructionist who’s voting against everything and staying in until he can run for governor or senator," he said.