Palin herself, of course, derided Obama’s experience in her speech, in particular his stint as a community organizer—which is no wonder, given that occupation’s urban (read black, read poor, read black poor) connotations. Yet for all of Palin’s comfort in playing the lipstick-wearing pit bull, her most important role in the campaign ahead will not be mauling Obama. It will be energizing the party’s base. As The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reported, the McCain scheduling squad is “filling a calendar that will find her deployed to places where McCain can’t go, places where McCain’s gone and fallen flat, and places where social conservatives need an enthusiasm boost.” The goal here is straightforward: increase Evangelical turnout to Bush-like levels, in order to more or less solidify the 2004 electoral map.
But by riling up and nailing down the base, Palin performs an even more valuable function for McCain: She allows him to ignore the wingnuts and sprint hard toward the center. To focus on issues where McCain’s positions appeal to moderate and independent voters. To spend the lion’s share of his time in the handful of states on which the election will turn: the traditional battlegrounds, such as Ohio; the new ones, such as Virginia and Colorado; and also one or two blue states, namely Michigan and Pennsylvania, that Schmidt thinks might be within McCain’s grasp. It was no coincidence that the day after the convention, the new Republican ticket headed to Macomb County, outside Detroit.
These calculations undergirded almost every element of McCain’s own speech to the convention. The only time the Republican standard-bearer uttered the surname Bush, he was referring to Laura. (McCain was by no means unique on this score; that four-letter expletive was used only seven times over the course of the convention.) Only thrice did he utter the word Republican: once in relation to Sarah Palin, and twice in the context of decrying corruption. The speech was themeless, meandering, stirring only in its biographical passages. But its central political thrust was an appeal to bi-partisanship. “Again and again, I’ve worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed,” McCain said. “That’s how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. … Instead of rejecting good ideas because we didn’t think of them first, let’s use the best ideas from both sides. Instead of fighting over who gets the credit, let’s try sharing it. This amazing country can do anything we put our minds to. I will ask Democrats and independents to serve with me.”
The speech, in other words, was an attempt to revive the McCain brand of old: the reformer, the change agent, the maverick. This task is essential for McCain to have a chance to win in November; he needs to pick off sufficient numbers of independent voters to turn back the Democratic tide. A pure-base strategy will not do—as Schmidt is well aware. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Steve only knows how to do base politics,” explains Dan Schnur, McCain’s communications director in 2000, who is based now in California. “The campaign he ran out here for Arnold was all about persuading undecided voters, many of them independents. He knows how to do that too.”
The question is whether the Obama campaign will let McCain seize the center. “All summer everyone assumed that this race would be decided by whether McCain could bring down Obama,” says Alex Castellanos. “But I think that’s already happened. They’ve cut him open. They know how to make him bleed. Now I think what’s really going to determine the outcome of this race is whether Obama can bring down McCain.”
The night before the Republican convention got under way, Axelrod was still marveling at the audacity of the Palin pick, delighting in the opening it gave him to tear Obama’s opponent a new one. “McCain has completely subverted his own argument that the most important thing that you need to be president is vast foreign-policy and national-security experience,” he said. He named someone who could very well be president one day—a third of all the people who have been V.P. wind up as president—who has no such experience. It kinda makes a mockery of his slogan ‘Country first.’ This was a politics-first decision.”
By the time the GOP convention was over, however, Axelrod was telling the New York Times that Obama would not challenge Palin’s experience. And the campaign, plainly flummoxed, was struggling to calibrate an appropriate stance toward her and the array of forces her nomination had unexpectedly let loose. In Palin, the Obama people found themselves confronting something which they have no experience: a phenomenon so new and fascinating to the press and the public that it threatens to eclipse even their boss. The hard-right views were contained in a disarming, charismatic package. And attacking would be much more complicated than it first appeared. Thus, one school of thought was simply to ignore her.