Sabato's Crystal Ball

Attack Dog: Palin and Simple

Reacting to Palin and Anticipating McCain

Isaac Wood, U.Va. Center for Politics September 4th, 2008

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DAY THREE

Sarah Palin’s speech was perhaps the defining moment of the 2008 Republican National Convention. While the headlining act doesn’t take the stage until tonight, Palin’s leap into the spotlight had television viewers and convention attendees in a tizzy in the days and hours leading up to her primetime address.

The speech she gave turned out to be somewhat different from the speech many expected. Most pundits were expecting an introductory piece, laying out her biography and stressing her similarities with her running mate, John McCain. Instead they were treated to a more traditional vice-presidential attack dog speech. The crowds at the Xcel Center ate it up. For the most parts, the pundits did too.

Still there are some lingering concerns about the tone she struck. Palin likened herself to a pit bull, and seemed quite comfortable with the attack dog role. She took on her opponent, Barack Obama, even more than she extolled her running mate’s virtues. She tried to play the change card in her own way, informing voters about her record as a reformer. Unlike in Obama’s vision of a changed Washington, attacking the other side is clearly not verboten.

Palin attacked Obama’s past, saying that her experience as mayor was like Obama’s as a community organizer, except that she had actual “responsibilities.” She attacked Obama’s present, setting her sights on his job as a U.S. Senator and noting that he “has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform.” And she attacked Obama’s future, saying he is unfit to become president because “the American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of personal discovery.” Yes, she mentioned her family and her history of reform, but the true message was that she is ready to meet the Democrats head on.

The speech also helped answer some questions about why Palin was chosen for the ticket. Before the speech, some had hypothesized that McCain was reaching out to dispirited supporters of Hillary Clinton. Others, meanwhile, thought he was trying to appease the conservative base voters who shudder each time they hear the word “maverick.”

Last night’s speech clearly supported the idea that Palin is a conservative choice meant to fire up the thus-far unenthusiastic base. Instead of painting McCain as a friend of women and a relative moderate, which would have appealed to the Clinton holdouts, Palin instead focused in on Obama. Attacking a guy preaching a post-partisan message is a risky choice with swing voters and independents, but a sure-fire winner with dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.

There were other speeches last night too, but they were almost completely overshadowed by the highly anticipated Palin speech. Hawaiian Governor Linda Lingle stood out, though only for her mediocrity, while New York City Mayor and ex-presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani truly wowed. Even at the end, when Palin was joined onstage, first by family and then by John McCain, it seemed the lion’s share of the applause was still aimed her way.

The handmade signs being passed out by RNC staffers throughout the arena read, “Palin Power” and Palin did indeed deliver a powerful speech. For now, however, that power is being directed squarely at the base voters, not the crucial ones at the margins.


DAY FOUR PREVIEW

Tonight is the night for John McCain to show he too can wow the crowds. His bigger challenge, however, may be wowing those at home. Time and again McCain has been unable to match Obama speech for speech, most notably on the night Obama declared victory in the Demcoratic primary, when McCain addressed a meager crowd in front of his infamous green backdrop. This time McCain will be surrounded by legions of his most fervent followers, but will a raucous welcome and crowd reactions be enough to impress those at home?

In addition to the challenge of a major speech, the convention acceptance marks an important moment. That moment, of course, is the end of the primary. From this night forward, McCain will need the support, not just of his fellow Republicans, but of independents and even Democrats. As a candidate still somewhat preoccupied with securing his base, McCain has a tightrope walk ahead of him.

Expect tonight’s speech to mark the end of the outright partisan attacks and the burnishing of conservative credentials. Starting tonight, John McCain will wear his maverick label with the same pride with which he has displayed his military credentials throughout the convention. The red meat of the last few days will likely be absent from the menu tonight. There’s a reason why vice-presidential nominees are expected to be on the attack. It’s because the presidential candidate can’t be. Presidential nominees are expected to remain above the fray, so as much as McCain may want to call Obama the names Giuliani and Palin used last night, he won’t.

Instead McCain must lay out his own vision for the future. It should, and will, be somewhat vague, but if the campaign wishes to continue criticism of Obama as a pure rhetorician, they must pay the price of policy proposals in tonight’s speech. Foreign policy and energy will likely receive attention; lowering taxes and ending earmarks should too.

The expectations are somewhat daunting. Obama set a high bar and Palin cleared it. Now it is McCain’s turn to make the jump. News networks across America will no doubt show B-roll footage interspersing Obama’s and McCain’s respective announcement speeches. McCain won’t be able to match the visuals of a packed stadium that Obama provided, so he must make up for it with a strong message and presentation. Tonight, the general election begins.