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Final Words on RNC

A man who never quits is a man who's never defeated," Republican convention keynoter Fred Thompson said of John McCain last Tuesday night, perhaps the most telling sentence uttered in the three-day bloviation fest. Before the RNC started, CL raised five key questions McCain and the GOP needed to answer, as a metric for judging the convention. Here's a report card on how they did.

1-How do you spin a hurricane?

Amid political fears that Hurricane Gustav would reprise the GOP's Katrina nightmare, McCain lost the first night of the convention when he ordered proceedings truncated, but won a one-day news bump by heading South to "monitor" the storm and having wife Cindy pitch the delegates in Minnesota to go to the wallet for hurricane relief. By far the biggest hurricane plus for McCain, however, was shooing away George Bush, who was reduced to an eight-minute video mini-address out of prime time, purportedly because of his pressing duties watching the Weather Channel.
Grade: A

2-How does McCain separate himself from Bush-Cheney?

Trying to run away from the charge that McCain would represent a third Bush term, the candidates' handlers not only made the outgoing president the first in modern history to miss his convention farewell tour, but also ensured that his name was not spoken from the podium. All well and good, but McCain's failure in his acceptance speech to be more forceful, specific and clear in separating himself from the president kept the most effective attack line of the Obama-Biden bunch alive and well.
Grade: C

3-What will Sarah do?

Unlike Dan Quayle, who never recovered from his stumbling start after being named as Bush 41's running mate in 1988, Sarah Palin hit the ground running when she emerged from seclusion on Wednesday night, electrifying the convention, changing the momentum in the race and leaving bookers for "The View" panting after her. A true game changer.
Grade: A+

4-How do Republicans finesse the experience argument against Obama?

Between Palin, Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham and most of the other big speakers, Obama got sliced, smeared and sneered at for three full days, portrayed as a self-absorbed, effete elitist unfit to carry McCain's suit coat. The problem for the Republicans though, is that most of the attacks were delivered with bitter sarcasm, the most volatile and self-endangering form of humor, which signals underlying anger and defensiveness more than smiling confidence. Whatever you think of Obama's politics and policies, the guy won 18 million votes in the primaries and became the first African-American in history to win a national nomination; next to that, Palin's smarmy cracks made her look like a Mean Girl who still belonged in high school, and hurt her more than him.
Grade: C

5-How do the Republicans seize the economy as an issue?

They didn't. Mystifyingly, they didn't even try.
Grade: F

Bottom line: McCain came out of his convention stronger than when he came in, with the big difference being the energy Palin injected into the GOP base. But succeeding in battleground states against Obama's arguments about the economy by defining the election as being about character still seems like a hard sell.

Overall grade: C+

Pass the Remote
Random final thoughts from a couch potato conventioneer:

Who's the audience: It's axiomatic that every national political convention has two distinct audiences: the choir of delegates, pols and hacks inside the hall (or football stadium) to whom you preach, and the vast numbers of undecided or barely decided voters who tune in on the tube.

As one who watched every minute of prime time fare served up by both parties (not to mention way too many hours before and after PT), it seemed clear that Obama and the Democrats aimed far more frequently at the voters, while McCain and the GOP focused more often on the party faithful. Part of this was political necessity: Obama had worked out a deal with primary foe Hillary Clinton, who did all she could to heal the rift in the party; McCain, until his pick of Palin, was still viewed with suspicion among many in the Republican right-wing, and thus needed to do more to consolidate his base.

Both got a bounce from his convention Obama pulling ahead after his by eight points, and McCain bringing the race back to even with his. By the middle of next week, new polls should start to wash out the convention effect and show the true state of play, and which side was smarter in how they structured their political stage craft.

Fred Thompson might have been the guy being nominated Thursday night, if he had performed as he did in his Tuesday night keynote during his pathetic presidential bid, in which he acted instead like a cranky geezer upset at being awakened too early. Thompson's folksy delivery of a soon-to-be-classic swipe at Democrats on taxes - "They say they are not going to take any water out of your side of the bucket, just the other side of the bucket" - was superb.

Rudy Giuliani was flat out scary, delivering non-stop slashing attacks and lowblows with a look of madness on his face, as if he thought he would soften the impact by freezing in place a rictus grin that only succeeded in making him seem more deranged. If that wasn't enough, he went over his time limit, forcing convention schedulers to scrub a warm and fuzzy video of Palin that was supposed to air before her speech, and which instead got squeezed in the following night. He did have one good line, though: "Change is not a destination, just as hope is not a strategy."

Joe Lieberman probably wanted to be McCain's running mate as much as McCain wanted him to be, but his pro-choice position on abortion took that off the table. Whatever Lieberman thought he was accomplishing with his political suicide speech touting McCain and bashing Obama, the bottom line was that his message of bipartisan cooperation was not only lost but also made to look ridiculous by the partisan braying by every other speaker.

Mitt Romney's breathtakingly brazen chutzpah in attacking "Eastern elites": Enough to make a hog puke.

Keith Olbermann, who's led the charge in ratings-challenged MSNBC's bid to position itself as the lefty alternative to Fox News, looks like a guy whose meds need to monitored on a hourly basis, and watching him work is like waiting for a tiki torch twirler to set his hair on fire.

You can read in the faces of NBC old pros Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams their despair and disgust at the way Olbermann's ranting style has damaged the network's news brand, as evidenced when delegates turned to their skybox and angrily chanted "N-B-C" whenever one of the speakers was ripping the media. To his credit, Olbermann did find a way to finesse Palin's strong speech performance, deftly using a line often attributed to Lincoln: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."

Also to his credit, Olbermann reportedly pushed hard for Air America talk show host Rachel Maddow to play a bigger role on MSNBC, including her upcoming own gab fest. Maddow's comments and analysis were consistently smart, fresh, and on-the-money during both conventions, and her act is already among the best of the cable talking heads. Props also to Chris Wallace, who played the podium position for Fox News, and night after night delivered sharp insights that often took issue with his more ideological colleagues and that always seemed to challenge rapidly forming conventional wisdom.

Check it out: I'll be blogging regularly on the presidential race between now and Election Day on Capitol Letters over here.

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