ST. PAUL, Minn. | Hurricane Gustav already has tossed around the four-day Republican National Convention schedule, but the storm hasn’t blown away the convention’s real purpose - to give John McCain and Sarah Palin as big a boost in the polls as possible.
The first two tasks are to convince swing voters that Mr. McCain is right on Iraq but not overly eager to get the United States into another war with Iran or anyone else - and that his running mate has what it takes to step into the Oval Office if necessary.
The flash polls aren’t clear on that. Most Americans told the Gallup Poll that they never heard of her, and only 39 percent said she is ready to be president, 33 percent said she isn’t and 29 percent said they didn’t know.
But a Zogby Poll put McCain-Palin ahead of the Democratic ticket - Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware - but just by two percentage points. The survey of 2,020 likely voters, begun Friday afternoon after the Palin announcement and completed midafternoon Saturday, shows the McCain-Palin ticket at 47 percent to 45 percent for Obama-Biden.
Zogby said the survey showed that the Palin pick had “possibly stunted any Obama convention bump.”
The Rasmussen tracking poll Sunday showed the race where it had been the previous Sunday - Mr. Obama holding an also statistically insignificant three-point lead. Sunday’s Gallup tracking survey show Mr. Obama up by six percentage points, but that was less than the eight-point lead he had enjoyed in Thursday’s poll, which reflected events early in the week at the Democratic convention.
“Palin gives McCain a big opportunity to permanently put the Obama-Biden Washington politician ticket on the defense,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times. “Republicans should focus all week on drawing contrasts” between the running mate in each party.
Mr. Gingrich said the convention offers the chance to make clear “the huge authenticity gap between a lifetime careerist who came to the Senate when Sarah Palin was 9 years old and Palin herself - a mayor, then governor, a mother of five, a National Rifle Association life member, a hockey mom and hard-fighting reformer who beat an incumbent mayor, forced out of office the GOP state chairman who had to pay a $12,000 fine and then won the GOP primary against the incumbent governor.”
Selling Mrs. Palin, the governor of Alaska, is in theory less difficult than the other issues at stake in the convention: war and peace, and the legacy and competence of President Bush on those subjects. Many Republicans here are privately relieved that he will not appear at their convention. Mr. Bush’s speech was canceled because of Hurricane Gustav.
The aim for Mr. McCain, a senator from Arizona, is to use the convention speeches and images to show that the Republicans know how to achieve a war-peace balance that favors them by making them seem stronger defenders of the republic than the Obama-Biden team yet steady of hand and seekers of peace.
“Americans across the full spectrum of political thought agree that - other than for the defense of our country - we won’t favor new military excursions for quite some time,” said Florida Republican Party strategist Al Cardenas.
Indeed, Mr. McCain’s greatest attribute is his patriotism, military record and family history - all of which also “point to a concern that he would be too comfortable in making decisions to go to war,” Mr. Cardenas said.
Republican convention delegates like to think that Mr. McCain’s picking Mrs. Palin, a churchgoing, corruption-fighting governor , already has made Mr. Obama yesterday’s TV star - and turned the usual female voter tilt against the Republican Party into a more level playing field.
“Right now, the only philosophical differences voters see is that McCain is old and for the war and Obama is young and against it,” says Republican strategist Rick Shaftan. “If it weren’t for the racial issue, this would be a Democratic landslide.”
Add Mrs. Palin however, and “the dynamic is totally different,” says Mr. Shaftan. “Sarah Palin has become an overnight superstar. Her selection changes the entire race overnight.”
Some Republicans around Mr. McCain think he needs to address the war issue regardless and do it head-on in order to dispel any swing voter impression that he thinks war is the only way to handle disagreements.
He also needs to use whatever television time he gets during Gustav to assure Americans that he is a “much better bet to keep us safe than the dangerously inexperienced Barack Obama whose naivete in dealing with dangerous despots should be cause for greater concern,” Mr. Cardenas says.
Mr. Cardenas, an immigrant who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba, warns that the danger to Republicans is that the convention won’t dispel the idea that many voters may have “that Barack is less likely to lead us to war.”
“John McCain needs to simmer that contrast and raise the bar of concern about Obama’s inexperience increasing our risks of being attacked successfully, so that on balance he is a better bet.”
Mr. Cardenas, a fundraiser for Republican and conservative causes, says the task for Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin is difficult at best.
“This messaging is complex and needs to be delivered carefully but convincingly,” he said.