To no small extent, Axelrod and Plouffe viewed the run-up to the general election as 2007 all over again. Rather than being distracted by national polls, they focused on the numbers in the seventeen states where they were targeting resources. Rather than heeding calls for Obama to plunge into the mud, they attempted to preserve his new-politics brand. And they looked ahead to the Democratic convention as a kind of national J-J. “Especially with the convention coming so late,” says Axelrod, “we saw it as our chance to frame the case, and if we could do that, we thought it would give us incredible momentum going forward.”
Axelrod regarded the first three days of the convention as being almost as important as Obama’s speech. His fingerprints could be found on nearly every address that was delivered, and the whole event proceeded according to a master plan devised by him. Monday revolved around the nominee’s bio, Tuesday around the economy, and Wednesday around national security, each session building to the Obama oration—the draft of which wasn’t finalized until three hours before he gave it, giving him time to rehearse it only twice—on Thursday. When it was all over, I asked if Axelrod believed the convention had framed the election in as dead-simple, crystal-clear terms as the Republicans’ country-first/Obama-first dichotomy. “I do,” Axelrod said. “Our frame is this: McCain offers more of the same, and Obama offers the change that we need.”
After Obama’s tour de force, it was difficult to dispute that assessment—and easy to forget the anxious murmurs among professional Democrats out in Denver. On the convention’s first night, two of the party’s most influential message-meisters, James Carville and Paul Begala, lambasted the proceedings as watery and weak-kneed. And just a few hours before Obama killed at Invesco Field, a panel of leading pollsters and media savants lamented the lack of clarity of Obama’s positioning. Was he saying that he’s the future and McCain’s the past—or that he’s one of you and McCain is one of them? Was he still a post-partisan reformer or a middle-class populist? “I still don’t think he’s defined the election, the choice, in a big way,” said pollster Stan Greenberg. “It’s astonishing that he hasn’t at this point.”
Maybe this is all premature and pointless Democratic hand-wringing—an occurrence about as unusual as the sun rising in the east. But it’s nothing compared to the fear and trembling that might soon be coming to a liberal household near you. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Wolfson says. “If McCain comes out of his convention ahead in the polls, an awful lot of Democrats are going to be running for the windows.”
When Joe Scarborough first heard the news that McCain might be plucking Palin out of obscurity and placing her on the ticket, he scoffed, “Yeah, that will not work.” It was the morning after Obama’s speech, not long past 6 a.m., at the Denver diner that was serving as the makeshift set for MSNBC’s Morning Joe. A few minutes earlier, Time’s Mark Halperin had staggered in, muttering something under his breath about a chartered jet from Alaska to Arizona—and the next thing you knew, it was true. Mike Murphy looked poleaxed. Pat Buchanan mused that Palin would be “eaten alive in a debate with Joe Biden.”
A few miles away, on the tarmac at Denver airport, Axelrod was onboard the Obama campaign jet, waiting to take off for Pittsburgh with his boss and Biden. His initial reaction: “astonishment,” he recalls. “She hadn’t been on anyone’s list. She’d just been a governor for eighteen months, and before that mayor of this tiny town.”
Palin’s political inexperience was just part of the weirdness of the pick. There was the fact that McCain had only met her once before flying her down to his place in Sedona to offer her the gig. There was the fact that his aides seemed as shocked and baffled by the pick as he rest of the Republican Party. There was her somewhat outré background: the five colleges, the beauty-queen thing, the sportscaster thing, the passion for weapons, the taste for mooseburgers. There was her part-Eskimo, snowmobiling husband. And then there were those crazy rumors flying around the Web: that her infant son, Trig, who has Down syndrome, might really be her teenage daughter’s.
“The McCain people are freaking out, they don’t know what to believe,” a veteran Republican operative said on the eve of the Republican Convention. “But she’s clearly not qualified to be president. She clearly hasn’t been vetted properly. I mean, who is this woman?”
It would take them a bit more than a weekend to figure out an answer to that question. Late in the morning of the convention’s first day, the McCain camp released its explosive statement about the pregnancy of Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol. Schmidt descended into the basement media holding pen in the Xcel Center—and discovered that what he’d really waded into was a press-corps piranha pool. The swarm of reporters around Schmidt was large, loud, and insistent. When and how had McCain learned that Bristol was with child? How comprehensively had his V.P. choice been vetted? Would the fact of Bristol’s pregnancy, along with the care required by baby Trig, compromise her ability to perform as McCain’s running mate or vice-president?