Friday, September 12, 2008

Palin and the Campaign

If you're a Democrat, especially one who believes that salvation is riding on the back of Barack Obama, then you might have felt a little shiver after Sarah Palin delivered her biting acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The days following the RNC have been filled with McCain campaign attacks, culminating in the recent, completely misleading brouhaha over Obama's "lipstick" comment. (Look it up, I refuse to discuss it.) In situations like this, with their presidential candidate constantly on the defensive and suffering beneath a barrage of Republican talking points, Democrats inevitably do what they do best: Freak out and self-flagellate.

But, from what I see, the Obama campaign is actually in a good position. And Obama's counselors, known among journalists for their cool professionalism and self-discipline, don't seem to be freaking out. Here's why: After Republicans put on their biggest event of the election cycle, the RNC, and introduced a vice presidential candidate who can best be described as the juiciest of juicy steaks for right-wing conservatives, the McCain bounce in national polls drew him into a dead heat with Obama. That bears repeating: Barring some dramatic, unpredictable turn of events in the next one-and-a-half months, the McCain campaign has enjoyed their biggest bump in the polls, and all they've done is pulled even with Obama nationally.

It's important to note the word "nationally." Included in such a poll, obviously, are voters in the South, as well as the Mountain West, two regions that I think most people would say are locks for any Republican presidential campaign these days. Yet McCain is only even with Barack Obama. Obama's operatives, because they're smart, can only be encouraged by this. As David Broder noted - coming via the Wonkette post I linked to above - the Obama campaign is playing the electoral college. They don't need to win the South and Mountain West. They need to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and perhaps Florida and Colorado. I'd be interested to look at the polls coming from those states.

Meanwhile, Palin's honeymoon has begun to come to an end. Realizing that they couldn't sequester their VP pick in an undisclosed location until Nov. 4, as they might prefer, the McCain campaign let Charlie Gibson go at Palin in her first big, unscripted TV interview since being nominated. Things didn't go super well. Liberal blogs are playing up the fact, perhaps rightly so, that Palin stumbled and evaded Gibson's questions, often repeating certain phrases, mantra-like, over and over. This is in spite of the fact that she was coached by some of the biggest Republican political operatives for weeks. I expect that her failure to address several questions head on - including her childlike attempt to escape a discussion of the "Bush Doctrine" - will get play in the mainstream media. The Washington Post already has a front-page story for Friday about Palin linking Iraq to Al-Qaeda at a speech she gave recently at her son's military base.

So now the tide begins to turn. Right wing stalwarts such as William Kristol and the National Review have turned defensive. Just as Democrats tend to form circular firing squads when things don't go their way, Republicans resort to their own time-tested strategy: blaming the media. Even for a nonpartisan such as myself, there's a delicious irony in reading Kristol whine about the Washington Post "distorting" Palin's Iraq comments, considering how easily he and his cohorts resort to distortions when criticizing Democratic candidates. Turnabout is fair play, and Kristol should know.

It will be interesting to see if the McCain campaign releases Palin from her media exile, or if they interpret the ABC Gibson interview as a failure and squirrel her away for more briefings. I'm sure they'd like to do the latter, but I think the consequences are probably too great. It looks like a lose-lose scenario for the campaign, because it's now clear that Palin is going to get criticized by the press, yet has to go before the press, and at the same time apparently can't handle the questions put by the press, even with weeks of intensive political education.