Conventions Give Obama And McCain The Chance To Reach New Groups Of Voters

As the days tick down to the opening of the national party conventions and their quadrennial promise of scripted pomp and pandering, political historian Costas Panagopoulos has been asked about the old days, when the gatherings were insider free-for-alls, the endgame rarely certain.

Like the 1912 convention that ended with Democrat Woodrow Wilson's nomination after a marathon 46 votes. Or the nine-day, 103-ballot debacle in 1924 that not only resulted in the compromise nomination of hapless Democrat John Davis but also prompted one of humorist Will Rogers's most famous lines: "I'm not a member of any organized political party; I'm a Democrat."

For decades now, however, the made-for-TV nominating conventions, with their done-deal outcomes, have been called the biggest nonstories of presidential election years, largely abandoned by the networks themselves. Panagopoulos, a chronicler of past conventions and director of Fordham University's Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy, would beg to differ, especially this historic season. "This is a milestone year," he says.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, 47, is poised to become the first African-American nominee of a major party. He's expected to accept the mantle in Denver's 76,000-seat Invesco Field at Mile High on August 28, the 45th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. And Republican nominee-in-waiting Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war who will turn 72 before the September 1 start of the GOP convention in St. Paul, faces the dual tasks of rallying a party in turmoil while distancing himself from President Bush--the most unpopular Oval Office occupant in modern history.

Slots and no-shows. Bush is scheduled to speak and then depart the first night of the GOP convention. Vice President Dick Cheney, whose approval ratings are even lower than the president's, is expected to be a no-show. A half-dozen Republican senators, some in tight races, have said they're skipping the gathering. And in Denver, Hillary Clinton has been given a prime-time speaking slot, but no one yet knows or is saying what role her husband, the former president, will be offered. Or, with animus still lingering from the hard-fought primaries, whether he'd even accept.

Nonstories? Hardly. "Conventions still serve a purpose--things do still happen," says Panagopoulos. Nominees come out of their conventions with a bump in the polls, though the spike tends to erode with time, and no fewer than 10 percent of undecided voters make up their minds about whom to vote for during the party gatherings, says political scientist Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With more than a quarter of voters surveyed in a recent CNN poll saying they could change their mind before November, convention persuasion has the potential to spell the difference in a closely contested race.

With the prospect of hordes of captive media and at least one hour of broadcast network TV time a night and more on cable, the campaigns have begun laying the groundwork for messages to drive home. Their targets: undecided voters as well as the sliced-and-diced electorate they need to reach. Hispanic and female voters, working-class whites, the young, the religious, those who reside in traditional battleground states like Ohio, and those in new states in play out west. "It's an opportunity and challenge for them," Panagopoulos says. "When targeting very different groups, they have to say very different things--the candidates and parties walk a tightrope during conventions." And though candidates will still have two months to campaign, the conventions provide them their best opportunity to make clear, powerful cases to these crucial voters.

Head-to-head national polls show that the race has tightened in recent weeks. But data crunchers at Pollster.com have reported that their state-by-state analysis of the electoral map idicates that at this time, Obama has a fairly clear path to capturing the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House, even without taking the battleground states of Florida, Missouri, Colorado, and Virginia. "All we care about is [getting to] 271," says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. It's a strategy similar to the one that Obama used to outmaneuver Clinton during the primaries. However, it is also worth noting that a year ago, all predictors pointed to Rudy Giuliani capturing the GOP nomination and Hillary Clinton ascending the winner's podium for the Democrats. Things can change, and quickly.

Though the McCain camp recently embarked on a week of negative ads against Obama (most notably a much-criticized one that mocked the Democrat's "celebrity") and also raised the specter of race after being accused by Obama of trying to "scare" voters, both candidates seem to have settled on a mix of hard-hitting ads and those with broader-appeal messages. One of McCain's efforts portrayed him as a maverick working to fix a "broken" Washington by "taking on" corruption. Obama has responded with themes he is expected to highlight at the convention: McCain's 26 years in Washington, his links to Big Oil, and his relationship with the Bush administration. Both candidates have made multimillion-dollar ad buys during the coming weeks of Olympics coverage.

In the limelight. What do they need to accomplish in the convention spotlight? GOP pollster John McLaughlin says that McCain must take Bush out of the calculation. "He has to put Obama in a headlock and make it a very sharp, one-on-one contrast," McLaughlin says. "The Democrats at their convention are going to beat the daylights out of Bush and the Republicans--they might as well give out Bush piñatas." GOP strategist Brad Blakeman says that McCain, who trails Obama with voters concerned about domestic issues, has to convince skeptics that he has the experience, leadership, and bipartisan record to tackle problems like high energy prices and a struggling economy. There is little doubt that Obama can best McCain on the rhetorical front, but a specific agenda from the Republican could mitigate that gap, strategists say. McCain can chase Obama by talking about his liberal voting record and portraying him as an "unknown" quantity, Shafer says. After all, it was a 17-minute convention speech in 2004 that catapulted Obama, then a Senate candidate from Illinois, into the national consciousness.

Obama's imperative hasn't changed since he secured the nomination: explain the "change" he has promised and come across as a commander in chief, strategists say. "I expect him to downplay race--the code words historic candidacy will likely come from others, not him," says Des Moines-based pollster J. Ann Selzer. "But the big challenge for Obama is to position himself as a problem-solver who will lead the nation out of its current mess, both on the domestic and foreign fronts." Shafer says Obama must tie McCain to Bush.

With so much at stake this year and so many new voters in play in unexpected parts of the country, the conventions hold the promise of providing more than what some skeptics of political gatherings past have characterized as the well-worn script of razzle, dazzle, and ratify.

By Liz Halloran