Watching the Republican National Convention on television, a viewer might have mistaken it for one of those reality shows in which two tribes compete for a prize, in this case using rhetoric as the weapon.
One side was passionate, loud and certain that its adversaries – Democrats and liberals (they would consider that redundant) in general and Barack Obama in particular – were weak-kneed wastrels who would turn the nation into a larger version of Sweden – socialistic, pacifistic and ineffectual in world affairs.
That tribe's stars were Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney – all losers in the race for the party's presidential nomination. They were joined by the vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, though she relied more on anecdote and wit than high-volume bombast.
Principal spokesmen for the other tribe were Joe Lieberman, an independent ex-Democrat, and John McCain, the presidential nominee. Their tone was milder. Their theme was not incontestable Republican superiority but the need for national unity across partisan lines. They clearly were speaking to a national audience that includes many for whom the past eight years had left the Republican label as uninviting as an Enron lapel pin.
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Sen. McCain took a long and winding road to the nomination. On some significant issues he began at odds with the party's platform and its leadership, including the conservative evangelicals who comprise one of its strongest interest groups. Over the past couple of years he curbed his maverick tendencies, altered his positions on some issues and achieved a truce, if not made peace, with them. In the end he was not their favorite – their preferences were divided – but he was their nominee, and he was not Barack Obama.
His choice of the obscure governor of a remote state as a running mate was risky, but immensely popular at the convention. Gov. Palin has the social conservative credibility that he lacks, and her first national speech was a knockout. She has already energized the party's base. She'll present an unanticipated and potentially formidable problem for the Democratic ticket.
As other commentators have noted, by selecting her Sen. McCain chose to make reform, rather than experience, the central issue in the campaign. And unlike Sen. Obama, she has not undergone the intense scrutiny and public questioning that toughened the Democratic nominee and told the public about him during the long primary process. She'll get a crash course in living in the spotlight between now and Nov. 4.
The McCain-Obama race continues to be a toss-up, in part because both men are distinctly unconventional candidates. Sen. McCain is in the odd position of seeking to keep a Republican in the White House by running against the record of the Republican who has been there two terms. As the convention showed, that will make for some odd moments. It's also likely to make for a heck of a campaign.