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Challenges for both candidates as Denver buzz fades, St. Paul beckons

By Sharon SchmickleFriday, Aug. 29, 2008
Barack Obama faces a sharp GOP thrust to turn his dazzling rhetorical skills into a liability unless he stresses down-to-earth substance in the next few weeks.

Sen. Barack Obama closes the Democratic National Convention with his acceptance speech Thursday night.
REUTERS/Mike Segar
Sen. Barack Obama closes the Democratic National Convention with his acceptance speech Thursday night.

Sen. Barack Obama’s rousing challenge to the nation — “We are a better country than this” — will stand in history and energize the millions of Americans who have responded to his call for change from the policies of the Bush administration.

“This moment — this election — is our chance to keep, in the 21st century, the American promise alive,” Obama told nearly 80,000 people  at Denver’s Invesco Field as he accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. “We are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look just like the last eight.”

But headlines about Obama’s stirring acceptance speech will fade quickly today into the buzz about Sen. John McCain’s choice for a running mate on the GOP ticket. And McCain will get his turn in the spotlight next week at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

Whatever magic spell the GOP convention casts, it’s a safe bet that both candidates will head into the next stretch of the race still vulnerable in many respects. Let’s look at a few of their crucial challenges.

Obama’s challenges
Obama faces a sharp Republican thrust to turn his dazzling rhetorical skills into a liability unless he stresses real, down-to-earth substance in the next few weeks.

Columnist George Will put it this way in the Washington Post:  

“Obama’s rhetorical extravagances are inversely proportional to his details, as when he promises ‘nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy’ in order to ‘end the age of oil.’  The diminished enthusiasm of some voters hitherto receptive to his appeals might have something to do with the seepage of reality from his rhetoric. Voters understand that neither the ‘transformation’ nor the ‘end’ will or should occur. His dreamy certitude that ‘alternative’ fuels will quickly become real alternatives is an energy policy akin to an old vaudeville joke: ‘If we had some eggs, we could have ham and eggs, if we had some ham.’ “

Obama spoke at length to that criticism on Thursday, spelling out his goals to cure the nation’s oil addiction, ease the squeeze on working-class voters and improve relations abroad. But his critics will want much more detail.

The issue of national security
Another challenge for Obama is to reassure voters that he could keep the nation safe. Despite the best efforts so far of Obama and even such persuasive Democrats as former President Bill Clinton, McCain holds a commanding lead on that issue.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll reported Wednesday shows that Obama has a mountain to climb in terms of convincing Americans that he could do as well as McCain in handling foreign policy and threats to national security.

On the question of who can handle the responsibilities of commander in chief, McCain led Obama 78 percent to 58 percent. Asked who would better handle terrorism, 60 percent chose McCain compared to 36 percent for Obama.

By wide margins, the voters polled said McCain was the stronger leader who would have better judgment in handling an international crisis.

McCain, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, is hammering Obama relentlessly on the security issues. McCain’s latest ad on the subject flat-out says Obama is “dangerously unprepared to be president.”

In other words, prepare to be scared during next week’s Republican convention. Threats to our national security will be a major theme because they are McCain’s strongest issue.

Engaging McCain on the economy
Yet a third challenge for Obama is to force McCain to fight him on issues related to the economy, which is voters’ main concern, said John Judis, a senior editor at the New Republic.

But Obama has to do it in a way that would clear the hurdles he faces as an African American candidate.

“In making promises, he has to be careful to avoid endorsing programs that could be interpreted as irresponsible acts of tax-and-spend liberalism,” Judis said. “He should avoid anything that appears to require new taxes, or that appears to send a lot of money to inner-cities.”

This is a complicated challenge for Obama, Judis noted, because an important part of Obama’s appeal is his call for racial unity. In his acceptance speech, Obama spoke obliquely about race in paying tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 45 years earlier.

“The men and women who gathered there could have heard many things,” Obama said. “They could have heard words of anger and discord. They could have been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred. But what people heard instead — people of every creed and color, from every walk of life — is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked.”

Going forward, Obama should frame his economic proposals “as an attempt to prevent the wide disparities in wealth, income, and power that are undermining the promise of American democracy,” Judis said.

“By articulating a positive picture of a unified America, this theme also has the virtue of directly addressing voters’ fears about his favoring African Americans over whites,” Judis said.

Challenges for McCain
Even while the upcoming GOP convention honors President Bush and Vice President Cheney, McCain faces a delicate dance in showing that he is not like them.

Commentators are assuming that Monday night is a write-off for the McCain campaign, as both Bush and Cheney are scheduled to speak, said Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix.

“But this night has an important electoral component,” Stark wrote. “Yes, McCain needs to break sharply with the incumbent administration on key issues. But he would also benefit greatly if Bush could raise his abysmal 30 percent positive rating to a somewhat more palpable figure in the high 30s or even 40 percent.”

McCain should direct Bush and Cheney to focus on what their administration has done right over the past eight years,” Stark said. But he added as a tongue-in-cheek aside, “that will make their speeches relatively short and get them the hell off the Minnesota stage faster.”

The issue of tone
A related challenge for McCain is to make his message more positive in the upcoming week than it has been to this juncture, Stark said.

McCain released an ad Thursday graciously congratulating Obama on his nomination. Earlier, though, his campaign also had blitzed Obama with attacks that were unusually negative for the first few weeks of a campaign. 

“The temptation will be for the Republicans to keep lambasting Obama, because it has seemed to work until now,” Stark said. “But without a compelling positive vision of change on domestic issues — which they have largely so far failed to provide — the Republicans can’t win.”

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Also tricky for McCain will be the fact that he would be the oldest nonincumbent to become president. He turns 72 today.

It didn’t help when McCain said on a video for Yahoo News!  that he is computer illiterate and he relies on his wife to handle the Internet.

In an age when jihadists maintain their own websites, that statement was “alarming, not quaint,” said Charles Blow in an opinion column for the New York Times.

While the public still sees McCain as the superior choice for defending the nation against terrorists, the Arizona senator remains vulnerable on the age issue. He risks being seen to Obama what Bob Dole was to a younger more vigorous Bill Clinton in 1996.

In essence, the post-convention contest that is taking shape is one between a fresh start that some say is urgently needed and an old guard that many see as safer during dangerous times.

To borrow a measure Clinton used in his unity speech on Wednesday, it’s coming down to a question of which candidate will be on the right side of history in the voters’ minds.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.