Republicans take jabs at Democratic convention from war room in boxing gym

Republican Party officials set up a war room in Philadelphia to monitor and respond to the Democratic convention this week. They can't help but smile when they talk about the venue — a boxing gym. They say it's appropriate given the fighting within the Democratic Party.

While the Bernie and Hillary supporters duke it out, Republicans prepare a few punches of their own

Omarosa Manigault, director of African-American outreach for the Donald Trump campaign, speaks at a news conference by the Republican National Committee on Tuesday. The RNC is trying to make sure the Democrats don't 'own the news cycle' during their convention. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Republican Party officials can't help but smile when they talk about the venue they chose to host their operations in Philadelphia during the Democratic convention — a boxing gym.

It's in a nondescript building in an industrial area of south Philadelphia, a few kilometres away from the art museum's famous "Rocky Steps" and Rocky statue that draw tourists and fans of Sylvester Stallone's boxing movies that were set in the city.

Inside, the makeshift stage that the Republican National Committee erected for daily press conferences sits next to a boxing ring. A fight is scheduled for Friday night, just hours after the RNC staff will close up shop and move out.

But the nod to Philadelphia's boxing lore isn't the only reason Republicans are loving their temporary workspace.

The Republican National Committee is working out of a boxing training facility in Philadelphia, a space officials say is appropriate given the fighting they say is going on in the Democratic Party. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

"We had no idea that this facility, which is a mixed martial arts and boxing training facility, would be so apt," said Michael Short, a RNC spokesman and the party's rapid response director.

"It's almost a metaphor for what's going on down the street at the Democratic convention, with the Bernie supporters and the Hillary supporters duking it out publicly and in an ugly fashion," said Short, who took a break from his laptop on Tuesday afternoon to talk about what the RNC is up to this week.

Lineup of speakers scrutinized

Sean Spicer, chief strategist and director of communications at the RNC, said the party started looking for space more than a year ago and the 2300 Arena was recommended to them. "We came, we saw it and realized it fit in a lot of ways," he said.

About 50 staff from the Republican National Committee, who normally work in Washington, D.C., are in Philadelphia this week. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Just as Democrats ran a "counter convention" during the Republican event in Cleveland last week, Republicans are in Philadelphia monitoring the proceedings at the Wells Fargo Center.

About 50 staff, most of whom work at RNC headquarters in Washington, are in town and working nearly around the clock in a war room on the floor above the boxing gym.

Flat-screen televisions line the walls and staff are hunkered down over their laptops sitting at fold-up tables that ring around the room. They moved in here on Sunday, with barely a break between their convention and this one.

Michael Short, director of rapid response for the Republican National Committee, sits at his laptop inside the war room for the party during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

They have various tasks over the course of the week. Some go out and shoot video and quickly package clips into short montages that they release to the media. On Tuesday, they produced one titled "Chaos at the DNC" showing scenes from the first day of the convention such as when Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was booed by delegates during a meeting.

Others are in charge of listening to every single speaker who takes the stage at the convention. They are ready to tap into their party's database full of quotes and clippings and they can quickly fact-check and compare what the speakers have said in the past and what they say on the stage. On Tuesday afternoon, they were preparing for former president Bill Clinton's speech, planning how to contrast his record with the platform his wife is running on, for example.

They listen to what the speakers say, and what they don't say, Short explained.

"Not once, in 61 speakers that were on the program yesterday, not one mentioned the threat posed by ISIS," he said.

Michelle Obama's speech 'off limits'

One speech they did not react to was that given by Michelle Obama Monday night. She is getting high marks for her speech, both for its content and its delivery. She gave an impassioned endorsement of Clinton, but Republicans weren't going to touch it.

"She was not giving, for the most part, a partisan speech, and I think the first lady is off limits," said Spicer.

Another task involves issuing "pre-buttal" news releases, putting out critical messages about the speakers before they take the stage. On Wednesday morning, the RNC put out a press release on Tim Kaine, Clinton's pick for vice-president who is scheduled to speak tonight in addition to President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. It's full of excerpts from news articles about Kaine, several of them about gifts he accepted while serving in various political roles, including governor of Virginia.

Republican Party staff working in a makeshift office at the boxing training facility. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

In the middle of the room a few staff are sitting at a table and on the phones with media outlets, booking interviews with party officials and surrogates for Donald Trump's campaign.

Earlier in the afternoon, the press team held a news conference with RNC and Trump campaign spokespeople that was focused on Clinton's foreign policy record. Omarosa Manigault, who was a contestant on Trump's reality show The Apprentice, was among the speakers. She works for the campaign as director of African-American outreach.

Those who attended the news conference could take home foam sleeves to keep beer cold and mini foam boxing gloves branded with "Enough," as in enough of Hillary Clinton. A news conference planned for Wednesday has former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani scheduled to speak. He and the other speakers intend to focus on Kaine as Clinton's running mate. 

The war room is running nearly 24 hours a day and the work coming out of it by the sleepy staff is helping to support the Trump campaign. The RNC and the campaign are co-ordinating with each other this week as they decide how and when to respond to what's happening at the convention. Some press releases are put out by the Trump campaign, some by the party separately, depending on the messages they want to convey.

They are also trying to be strategic and not flood the email inboxes of the journalists covering the convention, aware that if they do that, the press releases are unlikely to be read.

Short called the RNC's operation in Philadelphia "an aggressive effort."

"It's a very extensive and exhaustive effort. This is a big event to tackle," he said. "The Democrats did it to us when we were in Cleveland last week for our convention and we're doing it to them to make sure they don't own the news cycle and they don't get away with spreading mistruths and misrepresenting their record on the issues."


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