Suddenly, the decision to anoint former Virginia Governor Mark Warner as this year’s keynote speaker doesn’t seem that wise.
Warner will address the convention between 9:00 and 10:00 (E.S.T.) tonight, the main non-Hillary Clinton event of the night. On paper, he’s a logical pick–a moderate former business executive who won massive popularity in red-state Virginia by shying away from overtly partisan rhetoric and themes, winning many Republican admirers in the process. He’s running for the Senate this year against Jim Gilmore, but almost certainly won’t even break a sweat; it’s probably the least competitive open-seat race in the country.
So why should his looming convention speech be the source of trepidation for Democrats? Because the newest Gallup daily tracking poll, released this morning, shows John McCain actually edging into the lead over Barack Obama, with 46 percent to Obama’s 44 percent – the first time since the primary season ended that Obama has trailed in the Gallup poll.
The poll, conducted as Joe Biden’s addition to the Democratic ticket dominated the news, adds weight to the theory that the presidential race has become, in effect, a referendum on Obama, who has been the subject of intense press interest and who has found himself on the defensive against attacks from McCain and the G.O.P. McCain’s top advisers have long acknowledged that this is their only chance of victory.
If this is accurate, then it becomes a matter of some urgency for Obama and the Democrats to turn the tables on the G.O.P., and to restore the dynamic that defined the ’08 election much earlier in the cycle – a referendum on eight years of Republican White House control. In such an atmosphere, it would be almost impossible for the Democrats to lose, given the horrific standing of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the Republican Party label.
The most logical way to do this is to use the convention to assume an offensive posture, battering McCain in speech after speech and relentlessly seeking to link him with Bush and his fellow national Republicans. With tonight’s keynote speech, they have a perfect opportunity to begin this process. But in Warner, they probably do not have the right speaker to pull this off. The very reason he is popular is his aversion to attack politics and to efforts to demonize the other party. Sure enough, the A.P. is reporting that Warner plans to use tonight’s address "to offer a lesson in Virginia-style bipartisanship to thousands of hardcore Democrats."
The Democrats made this mistake in 2004. On the first day of the convention, they dispatched party leaders to each state delegation’s breakfast to spread the word that brazen Bush-bashing, whether on the floor or at the podium, would not be welcomed. The country had already decided it had had enough of Bush, the thinking went, so the challenge for Democrats was simply to define themselves and their nominee as an acceptable alternative.
John Kerry received no meaningful bounce out of that convention. A month later, the G.O.P. devoted its four-day convention to pillorying Kerry as a soft, weak and rudderless leader. Bush left the convention ahead by 11 points.