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Conventional Wisdom (day One)

SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA--Political conventions used to feature pitched battles among party factions, and the challenge to convention planners was to muffle these internal wranglings sufficiently so that the nominee could get his message across to the public on Thursday. The Democrats feared this kind of convention in Denver, but Barack Obama avoided it. The Republicans haven't had a convention like this since 1992 when the Buchananites made a ruckus--and this one continues the peaceful trend. There are clearly differences in the party, but John McCain and the Republican National Committee have submerged them under the flood waters of Gustav and the threat of a Democratic victory in the fall.

With party factions stilled, McCain and the RNC have been able to concentrate on getting their message across to the public and to the delegates. They will do the former primarily through television--and Gustav has probably helped rather than hurt their effort, because it has allowed McCain to reinforce his own message of "Country First." They will do the latter primarily through meetings the first two days of state delegations and party groupings (such as women and youth). I attended some of these. As Noam pointed out earlier, Republicans are much better at message control than Democrats; there was uniformity in what people said at these meetings--both in their public statements and in interviews. They clearly had a line that had been handed down to them and they adhered to it.

The Republicans stuck to the convention strategy of putting country before party while Gustav raged in Louisiana. They wildly praised McCain, but I heard no criticisms of Obama  The most I heard was a statement by Sen. George Voinovich at a Young Republican luncheon that he much preferred McCain to "Mr. Obama." There was a furious attempt to gin up enthusiasm for McCain. Speakers continually painted McCain as a hero. Said Mike Huckabee at an Arkansas delegation meeting I attended, "I recognize in John McCain we have a true honest-to-God American hero." Soldiers who had been imprisoned with McCain at the Hanoi Hilton spoke at both the Arkansas and Mississippi meetings.

Perhaps, the emphasis on McCain was to be expected, but when I attended a few of these state delegation meetings at the 2004 convention, most of the discussion was about how to get out the vote in November. The convention planners in 2004 took the enthusiasm of the delegates for the party nominee for granted. In 2008, they don't seem take the delegates' enthusiasm for McCain for granted. They were still trying to get the delegates excited about him. 

Ditto vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. I went to the Mississippi delegation's meeting partly to hear former UN Ambassador John Bolton talk about foreign policy, which I expect to be a major issue in the fall. But Bolton devoted his entire speech to praising Sarah Palin. He enumerated the details of her life (and her husband's snow machine successes); he cited Alexander Hamilton's praise in the Federalist Papers for the "energy in the executive"; and in his one mention of foreign policy, he said that when he met her during a National Review cruise-stop in Alaska, she "knew the ins and out of the missile defense issue." Bolton was clearly acting on orders; and the orders were to create enthusiasm for and remove doubts about Palin.

The Mississippi and Arkansas delegations didn't seem to need prodding about Palin. They were on the ultra-conservative side and responded enthusiastically to the idea of "pro-life, pro-family" candidate. Pat Harris, the emcee of the Arkansas meeting, which was sponsored by Wal-Mart, declared that, "When the Lord comes back down, he has three shots of finding me: I'm at school, I'm at church, or I'm at Wal-Mart." I also couldn't nudge former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a speaker at the Arkansas meeting, into confessing misgivings. Bauer thought that Palin would bring McCain "working class voters" who backed Hillary Clinton, but for whom "life issues are not going to be a stumbling block."

But you could detect some misgivings from the politicians. Both Huckabee and Voinovich praised Palin, but well toward the end of their speeches, almost in the form of a "P.S." And the young Republicans, who tend to be less conservative on social issues, also didn't display the same kind of enthusiasm for her as the state delegations. Still, I am not sure, and my colleagues and I will have to interview some delegates to find out whether there are any doubts or misgivings about Palin.

After the state meetings, I wandered into the RNC Political Leadership Briefing because I thought I would hear some political discussion about McCain's prospects, but instead I heard about how the RNC plans to get out the vote in November. It was the kind of discussion that took place in the delegations four years ago, but was taking place (as I discovered when I was ordered out after an aide discovered me) in private at this convention. When I entered the room,  Rich Beeson, the political affairs director of the RNC, was talking. He explained that the new technology that the RNC was using would permit it to out-organize the Obama campaign in 18 battleground states. 

Beeson cited a number of figures: With the new technology, it would take 190 Obama workers to accomplish what 100 Republican volunteers could do. It would allow Republicans to make 13,700 phone calls to 7,200 for the Democrats. It would bring in 8,500,000 votes at $.90 a vote in battleground states. What was the technology? I missed the earlier part of his presentation, but it had to do with automated calling and voicemail.  

Beeson did enumerate one feature of the new technology. When a Republican volunteer, calling from his home in Kansas, telephones targeted voters in New Hampshire and Missouri, those voters would see a local area code on their telephone ID and would therefore be more inclined to pick up the phone. Is this an innovation? I'm not sure, but to anyone who dislikes telemarketing, it borders on phone harassment.

After Beeson, Danny Diaz, the RNC's director of communications, began to explain the RNC strategy for avoiding embarrassment in the wake of Gustav. "The media will be looking for split screen shots of devastation in the Gulf and Republican partying in St. Paul," Diaz warned. I didn't learn how the RNC hoped to exert party discipline in St. Paul--that's when I was ushered out of the room, apparently the meeting was closed to the press. But based on my first day's experience, I have no doubt they will succeed. This is a pretty docile group that wants to do anything to win in November.

--John B. Judis

P.S. I forgot to mention that the RNC's leadership meeting, where they unveiled the "new technology," was orginally scheduled for the Mirage Room of the Hyatt, but was later moved to the Regency Room.