McCain’s hope, Obama’s bounce

In politics — as in comedy — timing is everything. Watching how John McCain and Barack Obama have used their time since locking their respective nominations is interesting and very likely instructive as to how this election year may play out. Their performances have sent some very clear messages to those of us who are determined to get our daily political fix between now and Labor Day, and probably to voters as well.

John McCain has taken a lot of heat for dithering, and justifiably so. He could have done a much more effective job of raising money, building bridges, creating a campaign infrastructure and defining who he is as a candidate. He’s tarnished his “anti-Republican establishment” image by embracing President Bush’s positions on tax cuts, immigration and offshore drilling. He was slow to begin raising money. He’s had difficulty speaking to large crowds and delivering a prepared address, often seeming to find the teleprompter a hindrance rather than a help. His signature failure in that department was the highly touted prime-time speech in June, delivered in front of the infamous green backdrop. I know this seems like inside baseball, but surely someone in that campaign knew that green is the worst color on television. Where was Mike Murphy when they needed him? One wag commented that the candidate looked like a dollop of whipped cream on green Jell-O. Ouch!

Now the McCain campaign has done some re-tooling. They’ve brought Steve Schmidt on board to run daily operations. Schmidt is a consummate professional. He began his tenure by putting some limits on the autonomous regional campaign structure that had a lot of experienced political hands scratching their heads. Giving Carly Fiorina a highly visible role was a good move, and the campaign is trying to recapture McCain’s maverick image, although his policy positions often have them sending mixed messages: McCain the maverick supports traditional party orthodoxy. Not sure that plays. But if we’ve learned anything in 2008, it is don’t count John McCain out. He may have wasted three months but there is still a long campaign ahead.

Barack Obama has, arguably, done much more in less time, although there have been a few hiccups along the way. Holding an afternoon press conference to explain his morning press conference on Iraq sent shivers of John Kerry fear up the spines of many Democrats. He really had no control over his malfunctioning airplane stepping all over his economic message this week — in-flight emergencies will get the news lead over fiscal policy, even in this economy. The campaign responded well, however, with the candidate freely admitting that having the pilot say there was something wrong with the plane made him nervous, then lugging his own bags off the charter jet to address the audience he couldn’t get to by speakerphone. The overall picture was he’s a regular guy and he can quickly adapt to changing circumstances. Nice recovery.

Obama has shown us he’s comfortable with his faith and confident in his future with his values tour of largely red states. We’ve seen more of his family because he’s made clear he’ll find time for them in a busy campaign schedule. He’s demonstrated he’s willing and able to stand up to McCain on foreign policy and economic issues. Even though pundits are still combing poll results looking for Hillary supporters threatening to sit on their hands, he’s made real progress in healing the wounds of a very tough primary. All in all, a good showing this past month.

But the smartest move of the Obama campaign is the announcement that he’ll accept his party’s nomination at Invesco Field in Denver. The first stadium show of the campaign, and an event that will make anything McCain does in St. Paul the following week pale in comparison.

Obama can spend the summer showing he does one-on-one very well, then put on a political spectacular that no TV camera dare avoid and tens of millions of Americans will watch. Obama the rock star surrounded by nearly 80,000 chanting fans. The campaign will get the name and e-mail of every local who attends, Colorado will be making history and the state will truly be in play for the November election.

Not since John F. Kennedy accepted his nomination at the Los Angeles Coliseum will America have seen such a political spectacle. We’ll all be left with the image of a visionary leader and his army of followers.

The timing? Perfect. It will give Obama a bounce that will leave Republicans wondering why in the world they decided to go second.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com