ENPR: Special Republican Convention Recap

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here is your Republican convention recap. Next week we will return to our normal schedule



  1. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has utterly changed the political landscape and revitalized the Republican Party. The presidential contest is not the race it was two weeks ago. It is now a serious fight for the "reform" mantle, and—in a return to 2002 and 2004—another battle in the now-revived culture war.
  2. Expect Sen. John McCain to surge ahead of Sen. Barack Obama in the polls over the weekend. The presidential contest could be crushing for the Obama campaign, especially in the wake of their superb convention last week in Denver.
  3. The Palin effect has rallied the conservative base in an extraordinary way, with Republicans at all levels reporting a deluge of donations and volunteers. If the phenomenon persists until Election Day, it will have an impact down-ballot and slash Republican losses.
  4. Democratic unity cannot be questioned. The Clintons’ performances in Denver highlighted a four-day love-fest.


Overview: Contrary to expectations, the Republican convention rallied the base and boosted Sen. John McCain. The catalyst: his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

  1. The pick of Palin—and the media’s and the liberals’ fierce reaction to it—has done nothing less than reignite the culture wars as the dividing line in American politics. The 2008 election—which might have been a battle over the reform mantle, the surge, or how to fix the economy—may now once again be about God, guns, and babies.
  2. Palin’s speech Wednesday night was the highlight of the convention. Exceeding the delegates’ expectations and quelling their worries, her speech—paired with the expert attack speech by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani—laid clear the GOP line of assault on Obama: out-of-touch, all talk, lacking accomplishments, and elitist.
  3. Still, GOP enthusiasm for McCain lags the Democratic enthusiasm for Obama. Republicans in St. Paul got revved up less about their nominee than about beating Obama and the media—and vindicating Sarah Palin.
  4. A significant McCain bounce is possible and, we believe, likely.
  5. Nothing important appears to have been lost in losing the first day of convention speeches to concerns over Hurricane Gustav. Specifically, the absence of President Bush may have been a blessing—from delegates up to high-ranking Republican office-holders, the private view was that the party benefitted from his distance.

McCain: McCain’s talk was pretty good for a boring speech.

  1. It was little more than his stump speech with an extended version of his POW story. The speech provided very little new, and McCain is hardly an inspiring orator.
  2. He inspired the base a bit with his lamentation over Republicans’ wayward drift, followed by his call to return to principles. He hit clearly, if not eloquently, on all of the important conservative talking points. His call to get the GOP back to basics was absent in the rest of the convention.
  3. McCain tied Palin into a theme of reform. Mentioning her name evoked a roar. He promised "change is coming."
  4. On foreign policy McCain tried to mitigate the rap on his "temperament," declaring "I hate war." He also made sure to talk tough on Russia, drawing a contrast with Obama.
  5. Compared to Palin, McCain certainly played second-fiddle at his own convention.

Palin: The highlight of the convention, "Sarah Barracuda" performed superbly on the biggest stage of her life—and the biggest speech to date of the 2008 election, by any candidate.

  1. If McCain’s pick of Palin breathed life into the GOP faithful last Friday, the media’s assault on her lit them aflame over the past five days. Palin’s Wednesday night speech poured gasoline on that fire.
  2. Greeted by a two-minute standing ovation, she was the rock star of the GOP convention, her welcome exceeding McCain’s and matching the Denver reception for former President Bill Clinton. Delegates leaving after her speech wore beaming smiles and gushed about her and the speech. Before her speech, support among delegates was near-unanimous. The speech only amplified that.
  3. As a speaker, she is less experienced and was more nervous than the other top-billing speakers in either convention. Her nerves showed at first, and her timing never was perfect. The latent energy in the crowd and the strength of her words made up for that, especially as she relaxed further into the speech.
  4. As an attack-dog, she seemed effective—a pit bull with lipstick, as she would put it—hitting Obama on themes of cultural elitism, and hitting the media, all the time with a sincere smile. For women, going on the attack is always tricky, though. Was it a mistake to make her debut before millions of television viewers as a snarky woman? She needs to play her hand perfectly as an attacker—a task Hillary Clinton couldn’t pull off.
  5. The speech was a blend of caring-mother-and-wife, supportive running mate, champion-of-average-America, and attacker. It was a good blend, although joining in the attacks on "community organizers" seemed a cheap-shot, and one that could backfire.
  6. On the average-American score, she defended small towns, made a dig at Michelle Obama‘s comments about being proud of her country "for the first time," hit Obama for his comments on Middle Americans bitterly clinging to guns and religion, and painted the choice as Scranton vs. San Francisco.
  7. So without hammering away at cultural issues—gay marriage, abortion, prayer in school, et cetera—she gave a culture war speech, and perfectly played the tensions in the room, especially in her swipes at the mainstream media.
  8. Time will tell on this one: Pat Buchanan‘s 1992 culture war speech was a huge winner immediately, and later turned into a liability—at least in the conventional wisdom. Palin’s speech upset liberals as much as her nomination did. How will it sit with independents after days of liberal and media attack?

Winners and Losers: With Palin the undisputed queen of the dance, some Republicans fared better than others.

  1. Rudy Giuliani was a crowd-pleaser again, and he got the crowd ready for Palin. While it was odd to have the pro-choice, thrice-married, New York City mayor (who has been photographed in drag) taking the match to the cultural fuse, his lines about uncosmopolitan places where folks "cling to religion" caused the loudest cheer of the convention before Palin’s entrance.
  2. Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele also gave a strong speech—one of the most prominent black Republicans in the country, despite his loss for U.S. Senate in 2006, he still could have a bright future.
  3. Alaska’s Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens cannot be pleased by the heightened attention on the corruption within Alaska’s Republican Party. While some Stevens supporters posit that Palin’s presence on the ticket will buoy him in his tough reelection, he is now the foil for the GOP reform ticket.
  4. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) is a boring speaker, and his primetime address Tuesday was no exception. Delegates are not big fans of Lieberman, although they appreciate a high-profile Democrat endorsing their candidate. As outreach to moderate and independent voters, the idea of Lieberman speaking at the GOP convention was more useful than Joe Lieberman’s actually speaking.
  5. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was not a big winner. He delivered an attack speech, and it came across odd at some points. Also, he was not given a great speaking slot.
  6. Cindy McCain was peculiar—lacking all personality. The video about her life was impressive, but the best one could say about her speech was that she didn’t do anything embarrassing.

Issues: Speakers from the podium in St. Paul addressed a broader range of topics than Democrats did in Denver, with less emphasis on the economy.

  1. Character and readiness to lead were the main themes from the podium, with frequent mentions of McCain’s POW experience—a bit reminiscent of John Kerry‘s Swiftboat-themed convention four years ago.
  2. Expanded domestic drilling, the hobby horse of Capitol Hill Republicans looking for a winning economy-related issue, was a frequent topic on the podium. For many delegates, this was a prime issue.
  3. Abortion played a far bigger role in St. Paul than in Denver. More frequent than they were four years ago, pro-life lines regularly got loud applause.
  4. The top issue for delegates was national security, and it was a regular theme—tapping into worries about Obama’s strength, his belief in American superiority, and his qualifications to be commander-in-chief.
  5. Absent until McCain’s speech were critiques of the irresponsibility and overspending that contributed the GOP’s 2006 losses. Immigration, similarly, was ignored.
  6. The culture wars—based on disdain of both coasts, attacks on the media, and picking on comments by Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and Jeremiah Wright—surprisingly became a major theme of the convention, thrilling delegates.

Delegates: In contrast to the Democratic delegates, who were uniform in their policy priorities and bursting with enthusiasm for their nominee, the Republican crowd was lukewarm about McCain and diverse in their priorities. The buzz of the convention, and the life of the party, was Sarah Palin.

  1. Support of Palin as a running mate was enthusiastic and nearly unanimous. Many McCain skeptics were won over by this pick. The media assault on Palin and her family life galvanized the party faithful and gave them a good enemy again—the media elite.
  2. Delegate opinion of McCain ranged from nose-holding to supportive, with almost none of the adoration Obama enjoyed in Denver. Even among his primary supporters, McCain is often little more than the electable Republican with a great personal story.
  3. The crowd lacked enthusiasm on Monday and Tuesday, so much so that GOP operatives arranged for "chant-whips"—people to lead chants—in each delegation for Wednesday.
  4. While Democratic delegates—to a man—named the economy or jobs as the top issue, GOP delegate response to this question was mixed. National security was the most common, but drilling, taxes, and abortion all featured prominently in their responses.
  5. When asked their feelings on McCain, most voters immediately began singing the praises of Palin. It has been a long time since a running mate mattered this much.