In the Shadow of Katrina

As (some of) the Republicans (sort of) convened their convention in Minnesota today, behind the scenes, the event had more dramatic back stories than a telenovela. Here are five key political questions that will determine how successful the convention is, or is not, in helping John McCain's campaign.

1-How do you spin a hurricane?
With Hurricane Gustav slamming the Louisiana coast Monday morning, and at least one other big tropical storm on the way, memories of the Bush Administration's badly botched response to Katrina hang over the convention like a specter. Perhaps overcompensating, McCain ordered most of Monday's schedule cancelled and high-tailed it to the South to pose for pictures looking concerned, while the president himself begged out of his scheduled prime time speech and all three network anchors scurried to cover the hurricane instead of the convention. While everyone of course hopes and prays that Gustav does not become a Katrina-scale disaster, the hard truth of politics is that it's all about perception. The Democrats used Katrina as a symbol of Republican failure, so McCain's words and actions now, fair or not, will be viewed and judged by voters in the context of Bush's three years ago.

2-How does McCain separate himself from Bush-Cheney?
McCain caught a break when the president and vice-president cancelled out of the RNC, because the Democrats' most effective line of attack is tying the Republican nominee to policies of the current Administration. The erstwhile maverick McCain needs to reclaim his mantle of independence, and prove anew that he is his own man, by highlighting and explaining specific ways in which he is different than Bush but doing so in a respectful and supportive way, to avoid alienating the president's hardcore conservative base.

3-What will Sarah do?
Since McCain's out-of-the-blue pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate last Friday, the blogosphere and the cable chattering class have spoken of little else, as partisans on both sides seek to stamp their own brand of conventional wisdom on a thoroughly unconventional move. At this point, it's fair to say the Palin pick has accomplished at least three things: a) stoked the right-wing evangelical camp of the Republican party, long suspicious of McCain, who see Palin as one of their own and have helped the campaign raise $10 million since Friday; b) stopped Obama's convention bounce right now - Democrats were flying high coming out of Denver Thursday night but the Palin surprise instantly changed the subject; c) made everyone in the country want to know more about Sarah Palin. Monday's abrupt announcement that her teenage daughter is pregnant is the kind of surprise that comes when someone with no national experience gets thrust onto the national stage. The lack or absence of more surprises, Palin's performance this week, particularly her ability to handle the major league media, and how that's all perceived will determine whether McCain is seen as a genius or a dope for picking her.

4-How do Republicans finesse the experience argument against Obama?
Tagging Obama as not ready to be president was McCain's best argument against him; the Palin pick may not neutralize it, but it sure makes it trickier. If McCain is willing to put the 44-year old Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency, particularly with his medical history, it's hard to see how inexperience is a disqualifier for Obama. Palin has yet to show that she's ever thought about any national or foreign policy issue except for drilling for more oil while Obama at least has four years in national politics, in addition to eight years representing a state senate district in Illinois several times larger than the town where Palin served as mayor.

5-How do the Republicans seize the economy as an issue?
While McCain was well-positioned to run and win in a national security election (at least until he picked Palin), the fact that voters see the economy as their top priority means he needs to pivot in order to begin addressing real-life concerns of real people. So far, McCain's prescription for the economy has been to embrace more Bush tax cuts (which he used to oppose) and chant "drill, drill, drill" as a mantra to magically make gas prices go down. Obama offered a lot of economic specifics in his acceptance speech and, although many of them are Democratic hardy perennials, he at least sent the message to voters that he understands why they're worried and offered a framework of what he would do to help. McCain, who earlier in the campaign admitted that he doesn't know much about economics, needs to start putting forward some coherent ideas on the subject before Obama takes possession of the issue for good.

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