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Republican Convention Day #1

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 2, 2008

Yesterday, the Republicans had an abbreviated convention schedule due to Hurrican Katrina. So how did that affect the Republicans? Probably very little.

First, the Republicans reinforced the convention/campaign message of "Country First" and that McCain puts principle over partisanship. And it is hard to claim that while you are bashing your opponents and a hurricane is pounding New Orleans. The Republicans look better by trying to raise money for the victims because it reinforces the "service to nation" theme. However, the Gustav coverage probably drowned out this news.

Second, Gustav shows Republicans in a more positive, competent light. Most thin that Katrina was the public's tipping point for President Bush's unpopularity. And with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal demonstrating their competence, it provides a classic juxtaposition of then and now. Katrina went poorly but now Republicans have their act together. Unfortunately, selective perception means that those who oppose Bush will be reminded of Katrina and the poor response.

Third, altering the schedule means that President Bush and Vice President Cheney got bumped from the schedule. Bush continues to be the albatross around McCain's neck and he needs to distance himself as much as possible, especially with the Democrats trying to connect McCain to Bush. However, President Bush is suppose to address the convention tonight (but not in primetime) so he does not escape it entirely, though Cheney will be in an "undisclosed location" much to the glee of the McCain campaign.

However, I believe that the delay of the convention hurts the Republicans in two ways. First, and most importantly, the Republicans need to change the media message on Palin. While Republicans and conservatives have generally been enthused, the mainstream media has been much less so. When non-partisan analysts like Charlie Cook and Republicans like Peggy Noonan refer to it as a "Hail Mary" and sign of desparation that is not good. That means that the Palin nomination can turn quickly into a Geraldine Ferraro or Dan Quayle episode. With the pregnancy of Gov. Palin's daughter Bristol coming out now, it indicates that maybe the vetting job on Palin was poor and suggests poor decision making on McCain's part.

Moreover, as someone running on family values, the decision to keep the child and marry the father is positive and negative. Positive in the decision that was made. Negative in the sense that it reflects on the Palin's parenting skills. Some may think that Palin should have spent more time with her kids than running for office. This is that tension that all women with kids face and her opponents need to be careful that they do not go too far and risk a backlash. There will also be talk about whether the marriage was forced and whether that is good for the child and the parents. And it brings up sex education and may make Palin look prudish and ill-informed. Overall, a discussion about the process of vetting and not the candidate is a discussion that the Republicans do not want the public to have, especially after Palin's impressive performance on Saturday.

The McCain-Palin team needs to get the focus back on the issues and a convention that highlights her positives, attacks her opponents for impugning her character, and attacks their issues helps spin the message in a more McCain friendly direction.

Second, the McCain camp is hurt because they need to reverse the image of McCain and Republicans painted by the Democrats. They need all the time they can get to claim the mantle of change, undermine the Obama-Biden message, and show that the Emperor has no clothes in terms of policies (specifics and costs).

While the message would have been drowned out by Katrina, they still need to get their "change" message out. Tonight, the convention returns to normal, but they still must hold back a bit due to Gustav. For Republicans, they need to promote a positive message, but just as important, they need to attack the Democratic brand to overcome the Republican brand's difficulty.