ST. PAUL — When the Democrats convened in Denver, they had one paramount challenge to deal with: Their party was favored to win the presidency and increase its congressional majorities, but their nominee’s liberalism, inexperience, and alienation from Middle America left him lagging behind. Throughout their convention, they sought to turn Barack Obama into a generic Democrat and an antidote to everything the American people dislike about the Bush-Cheney years.
As the Republicans gathered in St. Paul, they faced a more complicated challenge — and not just the weather. Their nominee is more popular with independents than the average Republican because he has challenged President Bush and his party. Even swing voters who oppose the Iraq war tended to have a favorable impression of John McCain the war hero as commander-in-chief. But the price of that independence was a deeply frustrated GOP base. The Twin Cities convention needed to rally conservatives around McCain without dragging him down to the generic Republican level.
How did the Democrats and Republicans fare? It is much easier to use a Democratic convention to promote a generic Democrat than to advance Maverick John with a base-pleasing Republican convention. The proceedings in Denver got off to a shaky start, but by the end Obama had reasserted his rock star status, healed his breach with the Clintons, and picked up a six-to-eight-point lead.
But the Republicans caught a few breaks too. First, McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Democrats were departing Denver. He stepped on Obama’s convention bounce and all the news about his Invesco speech before 80,000 people, a feat the GOP nominee never could have replicated.
Palin brought three important traits to the ticket, even if a lengthy foreign-policy resume wasn’t one of them. As the first female Republican vice presidential candidate, she was well positioned to appeal to any remaining Hillary voters still sore about the glass ceiling remaining intact. She reinforced McCain’s narrative of independence from the corruption and wasteful spending of both parties, except that she did so in a way that rallied the right rather than repulsing it. Earning endorsements from conservatives who had been reluctant to cast a ballot for McCain, she finally consolidated the GOP base.
Then came Hurricane Gustav, nearly blowing the Republican convention off course. As Republican leaders wrung their hands and McCain ripped up the schedule in anticipation of another Katrina, delegates and reporters started expecting a debacle. But altering the convention schedule had its benefits: George W. Bush was relegated to video, Dick Cheney was a no-show.
If you wanted to avoid being dragged down to the Bush-Cheney Republican level, you could do worse than avoiding a Bush-Cheney convention. There were no cheers of “Four more years!” As the convention got back on track, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee served up the red meat while Joe Lieberman emphasized McCain’s post-partisan credentials. Palin easily exceeded the expectations her media critics lowered for her acceptance speech.
When the smoke cleared, at least one poll showed that McCain and Obama had fought to a tie during their back-to-back conventions. But structural problems persist for the Republicans.
In Denver, one couldn’t walk more than two blocks without running into people selling Obama t-shirts or buttons. In St. Paul, one could walk the same distance from the Xcel Center and not see any evidence that there was a convention going on. While McCain and Palin were hits, at times the contrast between the conventions was like that between a religious revival and Night of the Living Dead. In fact, the numbers at the Republican convention were comparable and the intensity greater at the rally for Ron Paul, the distant fourth-place finisher in the GOP primaries.
Can Palin rally the evangelical turnout machine that helped reelect President Bush and counter the volunteers for hope and change? Can Obama convince the country that a community organizer can be commander-in-chief? Is McCain deaf to the financial anxieties of middle-class Americans or will Obama’s tax increases suffocate a stubbornly growing economy? Who shares Middle America’s values? Which constituted a bigger failure of judgment, authorizing the invasion of Iraq or opposing the surge?
Those are the questions that will decide the election. The battle lines have been drawn.