But several factors were clouding the mood of Democrats as they arrived in Denver. Most important, national polls showed a narrowing of the race to a virtual dead heat between Obama and McCain. While Obama took some time off to prepare for the convention and the final two-month sprint to the November election, McCain aggressively attacked the Illinois senator.
Of secondary, and related, importance was the much-publicized reluctance of some Hillary Clinton voters to line up behind Obama, allegedly enflamed by the previous week’s announcement of Delaware senator Joe Biden as the vice-presidential nominee.
Republicans gladly pumped up this story line at the start of the week. Monday morning, the Republican National Committee released a Web video in which a former Clinton delegate urged others to join her in backing McCain; that evening, the RNC hosted a “Happy Hour for Hillary” party at a downtown Denver nightclub. The media predictably lapped it up; they are desperate for anything with the whiff of controversy or unpredictability at these scripted conventions.
The Clinton clash had some truth to it, as evidenced by the scramble to resolve the roll-call protocol for Wednesday — which was not fully settled until that afternoon, causing considerable last-minute juggling of the schedule. The first days were full of Clinton-Obama tensions: from Clinton supporter (and one-time Obama belittler) Sal DiMasi, Speaker of the Massachusetts House, giving an impassioned plea to unite behind Barack at a Monday-night reception, to die-hards on both sides conspiratorially trying to pry information out of third parties (including reporters) about the other sides’ conversations.
But most of this rift was inside baseball, and mostly served to draw more attention to two of the best and most popular speakers the Democrats have: Bill and Hillary.
It would have been political suicide for the Clintons to give anything but full-fledged support to Obama; anything less, and they would have ended up either ostracized from an Obama administration or blamed for a McCain presidency.
Nevertheless, delegates weren’t quite sure whether the Clintons would do the sane thing, until they actually did it. The relief was palpable. The delegates could put the issue behind them and get to work on their shared goal of beating the evil Republicans.
The bonding process was further boosted by the Friday-morning announcement of McCain’s V-P pick, which was viewed by Obama and Clinton delegates alike as a patronizing attempt to snare female voters. One of Massachusetts’s female Obama delegates says that the selection has given those Clinton supporters “a new outlet for their anger”: Palin.
By the start of the Republican convention this week, several national polls showed Obama’s lead expanding rapidly, to roughly eight percentage points over McCain. The Democrats’ dead-heat jitters are gone, at least for the moment.
Sticking with the plan
Impressively, none of the convention nonsense seemed to affect the Obama campaign, which patiently went through its prepared script for the week. Monday, they normalized the Obamas as a typical American family. Tuesday, they told America that Obama, and not McCain, identified with their problems. Wednesday, they told America that Obama, and not McCain, could be trusted with national security. And Thursday, they celebrated the wondrous return to American glory embodied in Obama.