With Hillary Clinton supporters grudgingly coming on board, the Barack Obama forces are preparing to do battle with the 500-pound gorilla at the Democratic Convention — John McCain.
The first 100 speakers barely mentioned the presumptive GOP nominee who has stealthily crept up to devour Obama’s once sizzling lead in the polls. Even after Obama chose stalwart foreign policy expert Joe Biden to run with him, opinion pollsters are showing a 47-47 split in the polls.
That means Obama has to wow a stadium crowd of 75,000 — and the TV viewing audience — when he accepts the party nomination Thursday night. It would be a disaster for the Democrats if Obama gets no post-convention bounce as McCain unveils his running mate on the eve of the Republican lovefest in Minneapolis.
And it means that both sides will be fighting tooth-and-nail until Election Day for the undecided voters.
The Obama strategists have been criticized for their soft-glove approach during the two opening days of the convention. They were intent on getting past the tensions of the primaries and restore party unity in a mass catharsis.
Tears wet the cheeks of many at the Pepsi Center Monday as the Kennedy era in American politics ended. Ted Kennedy, the lion of the Senate, vowed to battle his brain cancer and attend Obama’s inauguration in January. Michelle Obama’s paean to patriotism, traditional values and love of her family were part of the package.
Now the speeches are getting tougher; the attacks on McCain are much sharper. When former vice president Al Gore introduces Obama on Thursday, he will say that Obama is the right choice for America against a candidate who would continue the failed policies of the Bush administration.
Obama’s pledge to conduct a post-partisanship campaign to more fully introduce himself to America as a charismatic leader is being undermined by the political reality that negative ads work. McCain’s attacks on Obama as inexperienced, untested, a flash in the pan, too liberal for America and not ready for prime time are working.
Here is how Democratic policy makers here plan to go after McCain. They will charge that:
— McCain has a poor grasp of the economic challenges facing many Americans. McCain has done much of the Democrats’ work for them. He said he didn’t know as much about the economy as he should. And then he confessed he didn’t know how many houses he and his wealthy wife Cindy own. Seven? Ten? What constitutes a house? It’s still not clear.
— McCain is too old to be president. He is turning 72 and, if elected, would be the oldest person in U.S. history to assume the presidency. His sometimes bumbling off-the-cuff references, such as his temporary confusion over Shiites and Sunnis, haven’t helped.
— McCain is no longer the maverick he was in 2004. He has sided with President Bush on nearly every important issue, except torture of prisoners. He supports continuing the war in Iraq, offshore drilling, the appointment of conservative judges, and weakened environmental regulations.
— McCain has a zero rating from groups such as the National Abortion Rights Action League on women’s rights issues. He has advocated overturning Roe v. Wade to forbid abortion. He opposed fair-pay legislation, and bills to fund birth control and comprehensive sex education programs. Yet 47 percent of Republican women who support McCain don’t know his record on women’s issues.
— McCain’s undeniable foreign policy experience means little because his judgment is bad: Supporting the invasion of Iraq, joking about bombing Iran, ratcheting up tensions with Moscow and taking the Republic of Georgia’s side without knowing all the facts.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party’s 2004 standard bearer, whom many Democrats thought lost the election that August by not going on the attack against Bush or countering the swiftboaters who derided his military experience, has been urging a harsher attack on McCain.
He told reporters that Democrats have waited too long to frame an image of McCain as not the right man to confront the nations challenges. Viscerally, my feeling is they’ve got to come back at him (McCain) hard, he said.
Convention chair and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the attacks on McCain will sharpen. Republicans say John McCain has experience. We say John McCain has the experience of being wrong.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986, and writes the weekly White House Watch for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)