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By most accounts, this should be the year for Democrats, yet, recent polls show Sen. Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, in a statistical dead heat. Next week, when the Democratic Party gathers in Denver for its national convention, Obama will have, for the first and last time before the November election, the national prime-time viewing stage to himself–and he’s definitely got his work cut out for him.
First, the Obama campaign has to present an enthusiastic and unified party, which may in part depend on how convincing Hillary and Bill Clinton are during their speeches and Obama’s success in winning over Sen. Clinton’s supporters. “A situation in which substantial percentages of people who supported Clinton still aren’t rallying around him after the convention would be a setback,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
Obama must also make a strong case against McCain, who has not hesitated in recent weeks to come out punching against the Democrat, and dispel notions that he’s just not tough enough. “I think he presents himself as someone who is practicing a new kind of politics without polemics who doesn’t engage in personal attacks and character assassinations,” says Democratic strategist Julian Epstein. “That’s good and refreshing, but when folks are taking a lot of sucker punches at you, you’ve got to show your supporters and undecided voters that you can hit back hard. No one wants to vote for the guy who had his lunch money stolen. They want to vote for the guy who steals the lunch money.”
Robert Smith, a San Francisco State University political scientist, agrees. He says, “Obama needs to have a night devoted to making the case against McCain and the Republicans. They need a night, to put it crudely, of McCain bashing, to make the strongest possible case against the Republicans and their nominee.”
Obama must also be much more specific about how he will fix the problems that are most prominent in voters’ minds. “He’s got to convince people that he has solutions. So that means perhaps being a little less inspiring and a little bit more down to earth in talking about what he’s going to do. I’m a bit worried that the rhetorical atmosphere of an open-air stadium with 70,000 people in it may tend to encourage grander gestures rather than the more focused discussion that people are looking for.”
That would certainly please the McCain campaign, which won’t be sitting idly by while Democrats hog the limelight. It has planned its own Denver convention of sorts, dubbed “Not Ready for ’08.” Campaign and RNC staffers and prominent surrogates such as Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, will be on hand to offer counterpoints on news coming out of the Democratic convention.
“It’s pretty traditional. They’re just dressing it up a little bit more,” says Michael Tanner, a Cato senior fellow. “You don’t want to give the other side a full week of uninterrupted news coverage without anything critical. So you
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