Sen. John McCain ended the Republican National Convention Thursday night, Sept. 4, in St. Paul, Minn., with a nomination-acceptance speech that got only lukewarm reviews from media pundits but which, I thought, was effective in its totality.
McCain is not a natural speechmaker; he does quite well in town-hall and other less-formal, free-flowing settings. His podium performance was far less effective than Sen. Barack Obama's in Denver a week ago or Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's in St. Paul the night before. Yet it was above-average for a McCain podium speech.
You have to judge such performances by other measures: Did the speech disclose the candidate to viewers on TV and in the hall? Did it convey his persona, beliefs, and intensity? On those counts, the speech was highly successful.
On viewing the speech, any voter anywhere had to conclude that John McCain cared deeply about his country, was above party or faction, and would bring energy and commitment to the presidency. It was not an "A" speech, but it energized the crowd in the hall, deserved a strong passing grade, and certainly did not cost McCain any votes. Did it gain him any? We will know better about that in three or four days, when post-convention polling results come in.
Was McCain dissuaded on Joe Lieberman? Rumors this week led to a conclusion that, only a week ago, McCain intended to select his friend, the independent Connecticut senator, as his running mate. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, would have helped McCain attract independent voters and underscore McCain's aspiration to reach across partisan lines to solve national problems. Lieberman is a political heavyweight who has been through a national campaign before. Moreover, he understands Washington, D.C., and is experienced in dealing with big issues. However, it seems party leaders dug in their heels and just plain refused to accept Lieberman.
Why Palin? With Lieberman out of the picture — and a moderate, bipartisan campaign thus not a first avenue of approach — McCain then obviously turned to the person in the party whose generally independent, reformist approach most closely approximated his own. The Palin choice was high-risk, since she is relatively inexperienced in handling national-level issues. But she had the advantages of attracting some women's votes and nailing down religious and "value" voters in the GOP who were decidedly lukewarm about McCain. With Palin as running mate, McCain can credibly campaign as a change agent.
Why not others? During the nominating campaign, it became clear that McCain did not particularly like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's appeal was too narrow. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani just plain failed to attract votes in Republican primaries. Others, such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, had moderate, problem-solving credentials but, it was clear, would not be likely to excite voters in the Republican base or, for that matter, bring with them Palin's intensity.
McCain importantly stated that, if elected, he intended to form an administration of Republicans, Democrats, and independents. He often has worked across party lines in Congress and, in fact, was invited by Sen. John Kerry to serve as his running mate in 2004. Although he was speaking to a Republican convention, it was all too clear to delegates that, as McCain often says, he is far more interested in country than party.
McCain-Palin, as Obama-Biden, have presented themselves as agents of change. McCain is seen by voters as more experienced and trustworthy on foreign policy and national security issues than Obama. Obama, like his party, is more trusted on economic and domestic issues. Both sides will pursue their advantages and attempt to move debate onto favorable terrain. Yet neither side will be able to control events. Almost any foreign or domestic event could change the public climate overnight. If a new terrorist attack or other national-security threat were to move to center stage, it could elect McCain. If this does not happen, but the economy continues to be shaky, that could elect Obama.
Yet neither candidate will be wholly at the mercy of events. A vice-presidential candidate debate will be held toward the end of this month, with presidential debates following. Clear winners or losers there could create a breakout.
As we move to the next stage, both parties have introduced their candidates to the American people and attempted to define themselves for voters. The two presidential candidates — despite all their talk of independence and bipartisanship — represent quite conventional Democratic and Republican agendas. All the political fundamentals argue for an Obama victory, but the two candidates remain close in the polls and, as they say in baseball, that is why they play the games.