Friday, September 5, 2008

McCain didn't strikeout

By DeWayne Wickham

When John McCain walked onto the catwalk of the stage that protruded out into a sea of Republican faithful Thursday night he must have been thinking: please, don’t blow this.

A week earlier the Democratic Party held a widely acclaimed convention in Denver that was great political theater. The speeches were the stuff of television melodramas and got, mostly, gushing media coverage. The convention was overrun with Hollywood celebrities and sports stars. And the queen of daytime talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, showed up to hear Barack Obama accept the nomination that makes him the first black presidential candidate of a major political party.

When it was all over, Obama had taken an 8-point lead over McCain in a CBS News Poll with just a little more than two months to go before the presidential election.

But things turned sharply in McCain’s favor the day before he entered the Xcel Energy Center, in St. Paul, Minn., to formally accept the GOP’s presidential nomination. On the morning of McCain’s address, CBS News released the results of a poll conducted over three days that put Obama and McCain in a dead heat.

They each had the backing of 42 percent of registered voters. Only a few days earlier a CBS News Poll had given Obama a 48 to 40 advantage in the presidential race. What caused Obama’s lead to disappear is unclear. The verbal barrage speakers at the GOP convention lobbed at him came Wednesday night, after the poll had been conducted.

Even so, I suspect that more than a few of the people who watched the drubbing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave Obama in her primetime television address expected a shift towards McCain in the polls.

“I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening,” Palin said.

That was a biting reference to an appeal Obama made for support of voters in Scranton, Pa., during the primaries that was followed by this statement in a closed-door meeting with a small group of wealthy supporters in California: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Palin used a bit of this remark – out of context – to paint Obama as a two-faced, political elite who is contemptuous of small-town America. That characterization probably went over well with some of her television audience, which was nearly as big as the 38.3 million viewers who watched Obama give his acceptance speech before 85,000 people in Denver’s Invesco Field.

Palin, a political unknown outside of Alaska just a week before she gave her vice presidential acceptance speech, drew a television audience of 37.2 million viewers; many more than watched Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware accept the number two spot on the Democratic Party’s White House ticket.

So with all of this going for him McCain didn’t need to hit a “walk-off home run” with his speech, which closed out the GOP convention. He just needed to avoid striking out.

McCain didn’t homer or strikeout.

His speech was good, but not great. It was the best address he’s given during this campaign, but it didn’t have people hanging from the rafters. What he succeeded in doing, I think, is hold the ground the GOP had taken – and kept Republicans within striking distance of an upset win in the presidential election.

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