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After Conventions, A Race Reborn

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

What a difference two weeks makes.

Fourteen days ago, it seemed plausible that by the end of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, Barack Obama would have put enough distance between himself and rival John McCain that he could be considered the clear favorite as the presidential race entered its final two months.

Consider what was on the horizon: A Democratic National Convention set to culminate in a soaring speech showcasing the now unified party's history-making nominee in unprecedented fashion. And a Republican convention expected to be a comparatively sleepy affair, one in which the biggest storyline was the possibility that a hurricane could hammer New Orleans and remind Americans of perhaps the lowest point in the unpopular Republican president's time in office.

Now consider how it actually played out.

The weekend before the Democratic convention, news leaked that Obama was tapping Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate. With his decades in Washington, Biden somewhat undercut Obama's message of change, but he also brought unimpeachable heft to the ticket and counterbalanced Republican charges that Obama lacked the experience to be president.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, had thrown her support behind her former rival for the Democratic nomination, even if not all of her supporters followed suit. With the press corps starved for stories at the start of the heavily stage-managed convention, disgruntled Clinton supporters took center stage in early media coverage. (The Obama campaign, perhaps justifiably, was soon openly complaining that reporters were overplaying the story.)

But by Wednesday evening - after Clinton strongly reasserted her support for Obama in a Tuesday night address and dramatically released her delegates to her former rival the following day - Democrats had largely pushed the convention, and the coverage of it, to their preferred script.

"The Democratic convention was aimed, pretty much, at solidifying the party," Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said. "A real strategic decision was made that if all the Democrats came home that were supposed to come home, Barack Obama wins - mostly because there are more self-identified Democrats in the country right now than self-identified Republicans."

The strategy seemed to be working: Biden's speech Wednesday evening energized the crowd, and Obama's Invesco Field extravaganza the next night went exactly as planned, with blue skies, massive crowds, and an address from the nominee that most felt lived up to what sometimes seemed like impossibly high expectations.

Yet just the next morning, the much-hyped speech wasn't the big story. Obama's address may have made history, but McCain had dropped what amounted to the biggest shock of the general election campaign: The selection of young, conservative, little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

"The selection and the announcement really was a trifecta," Republican strategist Dan Bartlett said. "First, it staved off any momentum for Barack Obama and Joe Biden coming out of their convention. Two, it really gave McCain an opportunity to credibly get in the change debate. And three, it's now taking a real shot at bringing disaffected Hillary Clinton voters to their side."

The pick was widely seen as having fundamentally shifted the nature of the race, though astounded political commentators weren't sure whether it was a home run or a disaster. Palin's relative inexperience seemed to undercut the Republican party's primary criticism of Obama, while her outsider credentials and anti-corruption bona fides fit well with McCain's "maverick" image.

The one thing most everyone seemed to agree on, however, was that Palin's conservatism thrilled a Republican base that had never really warmed to its presidential nominee.

"Because of that pick, John McCain is in better shape with the right wing of his party, where he has never been popular, than at any time in his political career," CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer said. By the end of the week, Rush Limbaugh, the radio host who had been unenthusiastic (to put it charitably) about the Arizona senator, was calling him "John McBrilliant."

Palin, meanwhile, generated a level of coverage that the men who had been seen as most likely to join McCain on the GOP ticket - Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty - could never have expected.

Nominee Speeches At The Conventions:
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"We've seen the birth of a new political star," said Bartlett. "There's been one in this race so far, with Barack Obama. We now, legitimately, have two."

But the coverage was not always positive: Rumors about the Palin family swirled in the blogosphere, prompting the McCain campaign to reveal that Palin's 17-year-old daughter Bristol was pregnant. The tabloid-ready saga landed Palin on the cover of celebrity magazines and would eventually prompt charges of media bias and sexism from the McCain campaign.

And then there was Hurricane Gustav, the storm that forecasters predicted could hammer New Orleans even harder than Hurricane Katrina three years earlier. As massive evacuations took place to the south, McCain and the GOP scaled back the first day of the convention and called on Americans to drop partisanship and do what they could to help - a message, political observers noted, that fit well with the convention theme of "Country First."

After Gustav, to everyone's great relief, failed to live up to its billing, Republicans got the convention back on track Tuesday. While the hurricane hadn't derailed the RNC, it had, in conjunction with the Palin pick, helped drown out what many expected to be the dominant theme of convention media coverage: McCain's difficult task of distancing himself from an unpopular president without alienating the base to whom he remains a hero.

President Bush gave a short speech via satellite Tuesday night; it passed largely without comment as the public remained fascinated with Palin, the self-described "hockey mom" about whom new headlines - Troopergate! The Bridge To Nowhere flip-flop! Bristol's "redneck" boyfriend! - seemed to emerge hourly.

So perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the GOP vice presidential nominee's Wednesday night speech was watched by nearly as many people as Obama's address the previous week, something that would have been unthinkable before the conventions. And Palin's speech was a hit, receiving largely positive reviews and rapturous applause from the crowd.

The following day, CBS News released a poll that found Obama and McCain dead even in the presidential race; the Democratic nominee had led by 8 points the previous weekend. The poll, which had been conducted Monday through Wednesday, did not take into account Palin's speech.

"I think it's really impossible to tell exactly where things stand," CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic said as the poll came out. "We get a lot of movement in this period. We'll sort of assess the two conventions together when they're both over."

As Frankovic notes, the back-to-back conventions have made it difficult to assess what "bounce," if any, Obama got following the DNC. But the fact that he now appears tied with McCain - in polling completed prior to Palin and McCain's convention speeches - suggests that it is the Republican ticket, not the Democratic one, that may have taken the most from its convention.

"There is probably not a political observer in the country who would have told you three weeks ago that John McCain would have come out of these two weeks in a stronger position then when he entered them," said Bartlett. "And quite frankly that's probably going to be the case."

In his Thursday night speech, McCain didn't electrify the crowd as Palin had the night before, except for a brief period at the conclusion of his remarks. But he had the full support of the largely conservative audience gathered in St. Paul, something that seemed anything but a sure thing when he secured the nomination back in March. When McCain said, "Let there be no doubt, my friends, we're going to win this election," the faithful roared in approval.

"In a lot of ways, the fact that McCain's even in this is an amazing achievement," said Trippi. "The wind is at the Democrats' back. You look at the number of House and Senate seats the Democrats are likely to pick up this year, and you look at where this race is…they've hung in there the whole way. They definitely executed with tough circumstances. The hurricane, they had to reshuffle the deck. Picking Palin, whether it turns out to be a disaster or not, is probably the bold thing he needed to do to give himself a shot. They've taken the risks they've needed to take and so far they seem to be benefiting."

By Brian Montopoli

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