In the modern era, national political conventions offer little suspense and less news. They are weeklong television commercials carefully choreographed to pump up the party faithful. They often provide a momentary surge in opinion polls for the presidential candidate but rarely determine the outcome of the November election. But the Democrats' national convention this week in Denver could be different.
Sen. Barack Obama faces different challenges than the typical candidate. He will make history as the first African-American nominee for a major political party. But the reality is he has to both celebrate that accomplishment and reassure voters skeptical of his ethnic and religious background that his values and core beliefs are similar to theirs. While Obama drew enormous crowds during the primary season, he remains a bit of a mystery to many Americans. He cannot let himself be defined by scurrilous attacks on his patriotism or lies about his religious faith (for the hundredth time, he is a Christian, not a Muslim). If Obama accomplishes nothing else this week, he must leave Denver with more voters clearer about his roots and his background to help inoculate himself from the garbage that is sure to come in the general election campaign.
While other candidates have used political conventions to unite various party factions, Obama has a unique goal. He has to bring on board the supporters of another candidate who was on the verge of making history, Hillary Clinton. That won't be easy (assuming she is not the running mate, which had yet to be announced when this page went to press), and former President Clinton has demonstrated repeatedly he cannot control his anger or his language when he defends his administration and his wife. Smart speeches by both Clintons could help mend fences this week. But Obama will have to close the sale, and he cannot win in November without the support of women who were so disappointed after the long primary fight.
As he reintroduces himself to voters and mends fences, Obama also has to convince a country fighting costly wars on two fronts that the main election issue is the economy and how to revive it. He and John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, have taken very different positions in the past over Iraq. But regardless of who wins the election, the challenge will be the same: reducing troop levels in Iraq without jeopardizing the gains in recent months, and refocusing on Afghanistan without creating another quagmire. The economy is a different animal; the candidates would steer the country in sharply different directions. Obama has the more responsible approach in eliminating President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest and providing more relief for the middle class. But the Democrat has to drive home that argument this week in concrete ways voters can envision benefitting their own families.
So far, August has not been the best of months for Obama. He has lost the momentum from his primary victories, even though a depressed economy and a hunger for change should play to his advantage. McCain's sharper attacks have made inroads and the race has tightened. But ultimately, the outcome of the election largely depends on whether more voters can get comfortable with Barack Obama. It is up to him this week to start making that happen.