Given that the Clintons often took center stage at this past week’s Democratic convention, the overall success of the event will largely come down to one question: how effective and memorable will Barack Obama’s acceptance speech prove to be? Of course, as analysis goes, anyone could have told you that.
Much more complex to figure is how to judge the success of John McCain’s convention. It will be a much different story for McCain next week in St. Paul. His convention will be more of a mini-series, with an ongoing plot line rather than a series of “special events.”
Overriding everything for McCain is the necessity to make his message in the upcoming week a far more positive one than it has been to this juncture. The temptation will be for the Republicans to keep lambasting Obama, because it has seemed to work until now. But without a compelling positive vision of change on domestic issues — which they have largely so far failed to provide — the Republicans can’t win.
With that in mind, McCain has to achieve these four goals during the upcoming convention to stay competitive with Obama. They are, in chronological order:
1) Pick the right vice-presidential nominee
McCain’s veep selection will kick off the week. If he makes a predictable choice — say, governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — he’ll be okay, but he certainly won’t reinvigorate his candidacy to the extent it may need to make voters think he offers a new, exciting direction. Who would do that for him? A bipartisan pick: if not Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, then perhaps Nebraska senator Ben Nelson — or even a dark horse.
Or, McCain could pick a woman, given Obama’s poll weaknesses with female voters. Former CEOs Carly Fiorina (of Hewlett-Packard) and Meg Whitman (of eBay) are probably out, because they undercut the GOP argument against Obama on inexperience. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — despite her ties to the Bush administration — might be worth the risk. If McCain doesn’t pick Lieberman, Rice, or someone who offers another exciting campaign “first,” his week will get off to a stumbling start.
2) Rehabilitate the President
Commentators are assuming that Monday night is a write-off for the McCain campaign, as both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are scheduled to speak. But this night has an important electoral component. Yes, McCain needs to break sharply with the incumbent administration on key issues. But he would also benefit greatly if Bush could raise his abysmal 30-percent positive rating to a somewhat more palpable figure in the high 30s or even 40 percent. With congressional approval still hovering at around 20 percent, this would put McCain in a strong position to argue in the campaign’s closing days that voters should fear Obama — with his ties to congressional Democrats — more than they should fear himself. So, McCain needs to direct Bush and Cheney to focus little on the Republican nominee and far more on what their administration has done right over the past eight years. (Another advantage: that will make their speeches relatively short and get them the hell off the Minnesota stage faster.)