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Future leaders on display at GOP convention


TAMPA, Fla. -- The Republican National Convention has in some ways become as much of a showcase for the GOP's potential 2016 contenders as it has for this year's nominee, Mitt Romney, through the first full day of speeches.

Although Paul Ryan has spent a third of his life as a member of Congress, he remained largely unknown outside of Washington until he recently became Mitt Romney's running mate. NBC's Ron Mott reports.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker received a hero's welcome from gathered delegates during his speech Tuesday. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivered a barnburning keynote address that touted his own accomplishments as much as Romney's.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker criticizes President Barack Obama's fiscal policies while promoting the experience of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention.

And while Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, will surely tout the top of the ticket, he may end up doing as much to burnish his own credentials for a future bid for higher office when he accepts the vice presidential nomination Wednesday evening. 

Related: First Thoughts: Mixed messages

If Mitt Romney is elected this fall, many of the featured Republicans this week will have to put their own presidential ambitions on the back burner, presumably waiting until 2020 for their chance to make a bid for the White House. But if President Obama wins a second term in November, the party will have had ample opportunity this week to size up some of their top contenders for four years from now. 

Jason Reed / Reuters

Republican congressional candidate and Saratoga Springs, Utah, Mayor Mia Love addresses delegates during the second day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 28.

Perhaps no speaker this week represents both the future of the party and the delicate balance between ambition and assisting Romney this year than Ryan, who has been a loyal soldier for Romney since joining the Republican ticket earlier this month, gladly taking a backseat to Romney on policy issues where their differences could be politically thorny. 

Slideshow: The 2012 Republican National Convention

But Ryan's star power has long been evident in the GOP, and even Romney has hailed him as an "intellectual leader" of the party. While Ryan's rock star status could well electrify Republican delegates on Romney's behalf, his speech could preserve his national brand well past 2012.

South Carolina Gov. Nikky Haley denounces President Obama's fiscal policies while depict GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as a results driven leader.

Other representatives of the GOP's deep bench took the stage on Tuesday, with some mixed results. 

Christie's keynote speech -- a slot traditionally reserved as a launching platform for future leaders -- last night seemed to do that much; he referenced himself over 30 times, but only mentioned Romney eight times. While Christie rebuffed efforts to draft him into the presidential race this cycle and eventually endorsed Romney, his appearance Wednesday morning before the delegation from New Hampshire -- which traditionally hosts the first presidential primary -- did little to quell speculation about his future ambitions. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie uses his keynote address at the Republican National Convention to talk about New Jersey's successes and how he believes that as a nation "we are beginning to do what is right ... to make our country great again."

Walker mixed boasts of his successes in curbing collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin with effusive praise for Romney and especially Ryan, the home-state congressman whose ambitious fiscal work links his governing philosophy with Walker's.

While conventions are not solely meant as coronations for presidential nominees, and down-ballot candidates -- such as Mia Love and Ted Cruz, two featured speakers last night -- must be mindful of their own electoral prospects, rank-and-file Republican voters might take solace in their party's future when looking at the deep bench of GOP stars on display this week. 

Related: GOP headliners cast Romney as relatable and decisive

Among the other speakers on Tuesday who could have future political ambition were Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the runner-up against Romney in this year's presidential primary. (Santorum's speech only mentioned Romney a handful of times, and seemed to dwell more on his erstwhile campaign than the battle ahead. He said he and his family "shook the hand of the American Dream" during their travels across the country last year.)

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell emphasizes the importance of small business owners in America as he criticizes President Barack Obama's fiscal policies at the Republican National Convention.

In addition to Ryan, some second-tier contenders in 2016 -- South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul -- will speak earlier Wednesday evening. 

And one of the GOP's pre-eminent stars, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, will introduce Romney during Thursday night's primetime session. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising start of the Republican Party, joins Andrea Mitchell Reports to discuss his speech introducing Mitt Romney Thursday night, whether he has any regrets not being on the ticket and talks about his personal ambitions.

Of course, there are also difficulties for politicians looking to preserve their future political opportunities while another candidates sit atop their party's ticket. Every Republican this week has expressed effusive confidence in Romney as the nominee; if any Republican even hinted at running in 2016, it would imply an assumption that Romney won't win in 2012.

"I am not running for president today. I am not running for president period," Walker said, for instance, at a forum this morning organized by the Washington Post.

Democrats may too suffer from showboating to some degree during their convention next week in Charlotte, N.C. The critical difference for them? Win or lose in 2012, Obama won't be on the ballot in 2016.