By Alan Silverleib
ST. PAUL, Minnesota (CNN) — Tonight, it starts for real.
After a day of watching updates on Hurricane Gustav and taking care of some mundane procedural affairs, the 39th Republican National Convention will get down to the serious business of politics Tuesday evening in the midst of what may be the most inhospitable climate for the GOP since the Great Depression.
Gustav’s domination of the news cycle is only the latest in a series of daunting obstacles for Sen. John McCain and the Republican Party this year.
With only nine weeks to go before voters head to the polls, President Bush is mired in Watergate-level approval ratings. Most people believe that the economy is in tatters. The war in Iraq remains deeply unpopular. Less than one in five voters believes that the country is on the right track.
Democrats are far more enthusiastic about voting this fall than Republicans. The GOP’s congressional candidates appear headed for a shellacking in November.
Retiring Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia may have put it best in a reference he made about the House GOP caucus this year: The “Republican brand is so bad right now that if it were a dog food, they’d take it off the shelf.”
And yet, in spite of that bleak backdrop, McCain is nearly tied with Democratic nominee Barack Obama in most national polls.
The latest CNN poll of polls — an average of the most recent national surveys — shows Obama leading McCain by 5 points, 49 percent to 44 percent. A clear majority of voters does not appear to be sold on Obama, and McCain’s maverick reputation is keeping the race close.
So what exactly does McCain need to accomplish in what is, at least at the start, a subdued convention partly overshadowed by a hurricane? There are four key items on his convention to-do list.
First: reintroduce the public to war hero John McCain.
Democratic strategists want voters to think of McCain as an out-of-touch Beltway insider who doesn’t know how many houses he owns.
Republican strategists want voters to think of McCain as the fighter pilot who spent more than five years in one house: the Hanoi Hilton.
The spotlight was initially going to shine most brightly on McCain’s military record on Monday, a day convention organizers planned to focus on the theme of national service. Expect that to now be pushed back to Tuesday or later.
Second: McCain needs to make it clear that his first term will not be Bush’s third term.
After watching the Democratic Convention last week, a casual political observer could be excused for confusing McCain with Dick Cheney. Speaker after speaker referred to an endless litany of failed “Bush-McCain” policies, a simple but potentially devastating strategy in a year in which most voters are hungry for change.
According to the August 23-24 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 50 percent of voters believe that McCain’s policy positions and Bush’s policy positions are indistinguishable; 49 percent believe they are different. McCain will have an exceedingly hard time finding 270 electoral votes in November if half of the electorate thinks he’s the next Bush.
Over the past year, McCain has steadily shifted to the right in order to capture his party’s nomination and placate the GOP base.
The Gov. Sarah Palin pick not only sealed the deal with conservatives; it fired them up. At this point, McCain may need to remind the larger general election electorate of the maverick senator who more than once has been willing to break with the Republican establishment on issues such as taxes, global warming, campaign finance, immigration, torture and the execution of the war.
Does this mean that McCain has to unveil a new moderate or even liberal policy agenda? No. But independents need to know that McCain is an independent thinker. They need to know he is willing to put the country ahead of his unpopular party.
In that vein, Bush’s decision to skip the convention and instead travel to Texas to monitor Hurricane Gustav was a plus for McCain. While Bush will appear before the convention via satellite Tuesday night, the last thing McCain needed was a Democratic ad showing the unpopular president endorsing him in person in front of cheering delegates in St. Paul.
Third: the McCain campaign can’t afford to bungle Palin’s rollout. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Just ask Dan Quayle.
McCain has taken a huge gamble by tapping the unknown, largely untested governor of Alaska. His hope is that she will continue to energize the GOP’s economic and social conservative base while simultaneously closing the gender gap and buttressing his pro-reform image.
Palin currently has an approval rating of over 80 percent in her home state, in part due to her willingness to take on corruption in the Alaska GOP.
The downside? The McCain campaign has now undermined its argument that Obama is too inexperienced to sit in the Oval Office.
It’s tough to argue that voters shouldn’t support someone because he’s been in the Senate less than four years when you’re willing to entrust the presidency to someone who has been governor of a small state (in terms of population) for only twenty months. Before serving as governor, Palin was the mayor of Wasilla, an Anchorage suburb with a population of less than 7,000.
Obama’s supporters are moving fast to label Palin as a dangerously inexperienced extremist. Palin is also struggling with the revelation of her 17-year old daughter’s pregnancy, as well as allegations relating to a potential abuse of power tied to her firing of the state’s public safety commissioner in July.
The convention will provide a critical opportunity for the McCain camp to put the best possible spin on these issues and instead ensure that voters see Palin as a fresh, energetic voice of change.
The fourth and final item on McCain’s convention agenda: attack.
If the election of 2008 is indeed about the need for change, the easiest and most obvious option for voters is to change the party in the White House.
It’s up to McCain to convince enough voters that Obama is too liberal, too inexperienced and too risky to sit in the Oval Office. McCain needs to use the convention to chip away at the public’s largely positive image of the Democratic nominee. It will be awkward to do so right after asking Americans to put aside partisanship in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.
Getting all of these things done in three short days won’t be easy. But if you’re a Republican in this election cycle, nothing ever is.