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.)
3) Work the McCain “maverick” story line
Virtually everyone knows the tale of McCain’s heroism, and it’s worth retelling again. But the public also needs to be reminded of his maverick and independent political career, since that is far less well-known. The real goal here is to place McCain back in the H. Ross Perot tradition, a position he assumed with a Perot-like appeal to independents in 2000. Back then, and like Perot, McCain offered a kind of “engineering” take on governing — suggesting a more non-ideological and practical approach to politics. Not coincidentally, both he and Perot were graduates of the Naval Academy, where they developed their similar outlooks, including a distaste for politics as usual.
The problem for McCain is that the more he’s identified with the agenda of social conservatives, the less appeal he has to this key swing group. He needs to re-establish it at the convention.
4) Give a good acceptance speech
The advantage for McCain is that expectations are low — both because Obama is such a brilliant orator and because McCain has been mostly a bust in 2008 when it comes to giving formal speeches. But McCain can give a good speech (as he did at the 2004 convention). The key is to paint a compelling vision and agenda of an American future under McCain that will undercut the charges that he’s too old and too foreign-policy oriented to be president.
Note, again, that in none of these goals is there mention of attacking Obama. There will be plenty of chances to go after the Democratic nominee as the campaign progresses. But during the course of the next week, McCain and his minions should be almost unerringly positive, arguing that they have a “middle way” agenda to reinvigorate the economy and the nation’s spirit. The more unconventional, the better: the best political move McCain could make over the next week would be to indicate that the era of “politics as usual” is over.
To read the “Presidential Tote Board” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.