Sabatos Crystal Ball

Anxiously Awaiting the Alaskan’s Address

Day 2 Review and Day 3 Preview from St. Paul

Isaac Wood, U.Va. Center for Politics September 3rd, 2008



With Hurricane Gustav thankfully downgraded to a tropical storm, Republicans were glad to get that cloud from over their heads. Convention planners were very much determined to keep Gustav from raining on their parade, and the second day of the GOP Convention in St. Paul had A-list speakers aplenty.

President George W. Bush addressed the crowd via satellite from the White House, finding the middle ground between not appearing at all and flying all the way to St. Paul during a time of recovery from natural disaster. His speech had a rather bipartisan feel to it, only taking one dig at Democrats in the video address. The crowd received him warmly, just as they had his father, President George H. W. Bush, when he stepped onto the floor an hour or so earlier. The younger Bush adeptly avoided attempting to defend his record, relinquishing the opportunity in favor of complimenting Senator John McCain and the assembled delegates. All in all the unexpected arrangement of having the president appear via satellite rather than in person was probably a political gain. Delegates got to see and cheer their party’s leader, while Democrats were left without any of the visuals they were hoping to use in attack ads over the next two months.

Fred Thompson was the first live, primetime speaker, addressing the party that had rejected his candidacy just a few months before. Thompson’s speech was notable in that it basically just told McCain’s life story, focusing on the day’s stated messages: “service” and “country first.” Thompson was ideal for the job, as the seasoned actor provided a stirring narrative that sounded–probably deliberately–very similar to the narration of the video pieces which aired earlier that night honoring past Republican presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.

Joe Lieberman, perhaps the most highly anticipated of all the night’s speakers, rounded out the evening’s lineup. Although he lacked the fire and brimstone approach of the 2004 bipartisan messenger, Zell Miller, most Republicans said afterwards that he said what needed to be said. He also strayed from the talking points in a few interesting, and awkward, moments. First he mentioned global warming, drawing polite golf claps. Then he went a step further, hailing President Bill Clinton, tying his opposition to Barack Obama to his lack of those positive traits Clinton possessed. This part of the speech was perhaps the most foreign to the assembled delegates, many of whom probably were under the impression that Clinton was entirely lacking of positive traits himself. Still, Lieberman’s comments that were most off the GOP script were probably the most useful as well. Lieberman was brought in to reassure Democrats who are thinking about voting for McCain, and paying lip service to Democratic causes and heroes helps to establish, or reestablish, Lieberman’s own Democratic bona fides. As his speech wore on, the mood of the audience could be described as relieved–happy to have him speaking, but just as glad he wouldn’t be on their ticket this fall.


Sure, there may be other speakers and events on the Republican convention calendar tonight, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the news or talking to those in the Twin Cities. All eyes tonight will be on Governor Sarah Palin, except perhaps for a few furtive glances aimed the way of her grandchild-to-be’s father. Republicans brag that Palin will be able to peel off crucial female voters who have voted Democratic in the past and may have been leaning towards Obama before McCain announced his VP choice. Democrats, on the other hand, are convinced that the pick of Palin is nothing more than a shallow ploy that women will easily see through. Tonight’s speech will be the first sign of which side will be right come November.

The speakers on Day 2 of the convention continually harped upon Palin’s “executive experience,” referring time and again to how she has “governed” both a municipality and a state. While she may have executive branch experience which Obama–and Biden for that matter–lack, she is at least equally inexperienced in national politics. While Obama has been concentrating on national politics for the past four years, Palin is a newcomer, and in many ways Obama’s presidential campaign has done much to add to his experience. The true test of Palin’s abilities to fill her newly appointed position as vice-presidential nominee will come not tonight, where her speech will bring down the house no matter what she says, but at her first real press conference, whenever that shall be.

A real danger of McCain’s pick is that it could actually neutralize two of his big strengths: experience and cutting spending. Palin’s inexperience almost certainly means that McCain’s camp must give Obama something of a pass on the issue, given that their own candidate thought Palin’s similarly short record was enough to justify installing her a mere heartbeat away from the presidency. Recent revelations about Palin’s actions as mayor, actively soliciting earmarks for her town, also may cause some to ask how much McCain means what he says about cutting the budget and eliminating earmarks when he chose as his right-hand woman an Alaskan earmark advocate.

How does this relate to tonight’s speech? Palin must highlight her similarities with McCain while downplaying their differences. Most expect her to focus on her record as a reformer and something of a maverick herself, two qualities frequently associated with McCain. This will also be the first time most Americans will have seen the governor and in politics, as in life, first impressions matter. The chattering class is almost unanimous in their estimation that Palin’s speech will rally the base and satisfy the masses. Never forget, though, that from there it is on to the press conferences and vice-presidential debate. Getting out of the gate quickly is important, but the presidential election is a marathon, not a sprint, even though you keep a sprinter’s pace.