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Starting Gate: Five More Questions

We've said it before but it's worth hammering home one last time: The next two weeks will hold some of the most intense, unpredictable and important moments of this campaign. Beware of whiplash because American politics has never seen anything quite like this -- two major party conventions, two vice presidential announcements and a whole lot of things that can go wrong or backfire. More interestingly, with so much happening in such a short time frame, what will anyone remember about these events? Five questions in the quiet before the storm:

Is There Danger In Rapid Response? If the events that unfolded yesterday proved anything, it's that both of these presidential campaigns have their rapid-response operations running at full throttle. Seemingly minutes after the report surfaced that John McCain was unable to remember how many homes he owned, Barack Obama's campaign was up with a television ad portraying McCain as out of touch. It didn't take long for the McCain camp to respond with a blistering attack on Obama's own real estate transactions involving indicted developer Tony Rezko.

By the end of the day, what began as a medium-sized problem for McCain had escalated into a near-nuclear conflict. Hair triggers might be useful in some instances but there are times when the response can cause more damage than the initial charge. The harshness of McCain's response (and similar ones by GOP-affiliated groups) and all the talk of taking the gloves off may make supporters feel better but will it woo undecided voters and independents? Obama's ads and rhetoric was evidence that he intends to fight back, but he also left the high ground to do it. Not to mention that engagement on this issue isn't particularly helpful to either candidate. Do they really like the direction they headed in?

Are There Any Perfect Choices? The further along both candidates go in looking for that right match in a running mate, the more they've probably realized that there are no perfect candidates. Each potential one has their upsides and downsides and once the choices are revealed, both of those aspects will come into full view.

We could very well know by the end of the day who Obama has settled on (he says he has made the decision). Then the public vetting begins. Modern campaigns have become extremely proficient in investigating potential candidates for glaring problems – be they personal or professional – but they can't account for public reaction once the choice is made public. Are there any "wow" candidates out there?

Will The "Clinton Factor" Ever Fade? Let's face it, there is very little that Hillary (or Bill) Clinton can say or do in this campaign that won't be parsed and dissected into a million little pieces. America is used to that with the Clintons, after all. But it puts them in a most difficult position of possibly not being able to really help Obama – even if they really want to.

During the primaries, some of the comments and behavior of the former president had all the amateur psychologists wondering whether he was either consciously or subconsciously trying to sabotage his wife's campaign. That far-fetched theory was made credible to not a few people because were conditioned to analyze the Clintons that way. The result of this dynamic – even when Clinton does something to help Obama, there are questions about the underlying motive, whether she's sending "strong enough signals" to her supporters or what she "really wants." Will that ever go away?

Can Expectations Be Met? Democrats head to Denver in a darker mood than they could have anticipated two months ago. Their "rock star" candidate is running in a dead heat in a political environment that should have him up by double-digits. The underlying elements still favor Obama but a well-run and received VP announcement and convention would help settle Democratic nerves.

It could be more difficult than it looks. Having wrapped up the nomination so late in the calendar, Obama has not had a tremendous amount of time to plan a convention, write a speech, vet running mates, stage a huge overseas trip, etc. His campaign has shown tremendous organizational ability, however, and that sets the bar pretty high for things to go more than smoothly on all these fronts. So far, so good, but his acceptance speech to tens of thousands at Invesco Field in Denver carries huge expectations. Can he pull it off?

Too Fast, Too Furious? Outside of the vice presidential announcements and the acceptance speeches, is there simply too much going on over the next two weeks for anyone to remember? The timing of the conventions couldn't be more scrunched together and, of course, they're taking place at that awkward end-of-summer period when most Americans are preparing to go back to school or get their final vacations in.

Will it all end up as just a blur (even more so than usual)? Would that be a good thing or bad thing? For two candidates trying to leave behind elements of their own parties (for Obama, the ghosts of campaigns past, for McCain the ghosts of administrations present), easily-forgotten conventions may not be the worst thing. It's not gone unnoticed that Vive President Cheney and President Bush are both speaking to the GOP convention on Labor Day, after all. But conventions are also about pushing messages at a time when you have the total attention of the national media. Can they make any of those messages stick?