TAMPA, Fla. -- At the CNN Grill here just outside the Republican National Convention hall, the chairman of the convention held court -- the chairman of the Democratic convention, that is.

"Call me Antonio," said the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. His message for the GOP was an unsurprising one: You guys have drifted way too far to the right, especially on abortion, immigration and tax breaks for the rich.

But his message for the party whose convention he will chair next week in Charlotte, N.C., was surprising indeed. "We have to put America first, America before party." The Democrats can't just "defend what is broken" in government, he said. Leaders such as President Barack Obama must convince swing voters that the Democrats are fixing government.

The president has shown a willingness to do so, the mayor said, including by trying to strike a deal on taxes and spending with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). A grand compromise, with Democrats yielding on spending and Republicans on taxes, has to be the top goal next year, said Villaraigosa.

In Los Angeles, the mayor said, fixing government meant cutting a tough pension deal with public workers -- tougher and better than the the deal Republican Gov. Chris Christie made in New Jersey. It meant pushing to raise the public employee retirement age to match that of Social Security. And it meant giving parents a greater say in and control over the management and leadership of public schools.

Determined to escape the usual labels, Villaraigosa has balanced his attacks on the sacrosanct interest groups of the left by ignoring the shibboleths of the right as well. He has campaigned against Prop 13, the California property tax cap that has starved state budgets, and against the death penalty.

"I'm taking on stupid wherever it exists," he said. "I'm looking for the radical center."

In some ways, Villaraigosa is an odd choice to chair the Democratic National Convention, as well as to serve as one chair of the Obama campaign. In 2008, he was a staunch supporter of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has also been through his share of rough political weather in LA: ethics investigations about basketball tickets and nepotism, criticism of his handling of public safety issues and a much-publicized affair with a woman who was not his wife.

But the mayor and former speaker of the California Assembly is a formidable politician. Dismissed as a goner a few years ago, he's popular in LA once more and he's looking forward to ... he's not quite sure.

He answered no when asked whether he would challenge California's Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, in 2014, but at 59 years old, Villaraigosa may have his sights set beyond Sacramento.

He is speaking at Democratic dinners around the country, pushing his somewhat contrarian "America First" message to the faithful. A presidential bid in 2016 is not out of the question.

Villaraigosa wasn't likely to win many followers among the GOP faithful here, but they weren't his target audience. The national media were.

Mission accomplished.

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