GOP Ready to Raise McCain

Convention to Push Reform

Posted August 29, 2008 at 2:26pm

Republicans have descended on the Twin Cities for a four-day, nationally televised pep rally to nominate as their 2008 standard- bearer a man whose presidential fate seemed doomed just one year ago, and whom many delegates here never wanted to see command the convention stage.

Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) ability to overcome the odds in the primary contests may seem like a distant memory this week amid all the revelry, pomp and circumstance. But if anything, that portion of the former prisoner of war’s life story serves to only further crystallize one thing for convention delegates: They are nominating a fighter.

McCain’s pick of a running mate in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — a reformer in her own right — to be his running mate only reinforces the notion.

Republican operatives widely agree that McCain is the party’s best possible White House nominee to take on Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in a political environment where most variables favor Democrats.

On Thursday night he will accept his party’s presidential nomination in front of the approximately 20,000 delegates, alternate delegates, volunteers, media and guests expected inside the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul.

McCain’s military background and his national security credentials will be two of the biggest themes in the spotlight this week. And while Democrats have cornered the “change” mantra this election cycle, this week the GOP will embrace the “reform” platform and run with it in a way they haven’t been able to for decades.

“I think the convention will bring all Republicans together in support of a real reformer and the only candidate in this field who is ready to lead, and that is John McCain,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), the permanent chairman of the convention. “I mean nobody can deny that he’s clearly got the experience and is ready to lead. And nobody can deny that this guy is a reformer, has been a reformer and will continue to be one.”

Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the convention’s temporary chairman, both have speaking roles tonight, part of about a dozen Congressional lawmakers who are participants in the Monday convention program.

President Bush, Vice President Cheney and first lady Laura Bush are also slated to address the convention tonight. However, they are not scheduled to remain in St. Paul past tonight for the remainder of the festivities.

Creating distance from Bush and his administration’s policies will be just one of McCain’s goals this week.

Beyond that, the Arizona Senator’s mission is twofold. He must use the convention to reassure conservatives in the Republican base who are still skeptical of his party loyalty and credentials, while also motivating them to want to take part in grass-roots get-out-the-vote efforts this fall. At the same time he has to use the national stage to appeal to independent-leaning voters — most importantly women — who are motivated by different issues than the party’s base.

GOP consultant Jon Lerner, who works closely with anti-tax conservative organizations such as the Club for Growth, said the issue of fiscal responsibility is one that will help McCain appeal to both conservatives and right-of-center-leaning independents.

“The message coming out of the whole convention needs to say we’re going to go in a different direction than the Bush administration in terms of spending and fiscal policy,” Lerner said.

“There’s a general sense out there that Republican leadership in Washington, both from President Bush and the previous Republican majority in Congress, was too into big government. There’s a sense that Republicans have moved away from their traditional limited government philosophy. I think sort of mainstream voters and fiscal movement conservatives are very much angered by that.”

While the smaller government, fiscal responsibility platform appeals to independent voters, McCain and convention planners are also sensitive to the issues that could potentially turn off that same bloc.

Accordingly, McCain — and the convention as a whole — is expected to focus less on the social issues that have come to define the party under Bush and his chief campaign strategist, Karl Rove.

“I would expect that this convention will have less talk about social issues than we’ve seen in many previous conventions,” Lerner predicted, adding that the more prominent themes will be those of “fighting terrorism, taxes and reducing wasteful spending.”

For the first time, the Republican convention platform will call for a Congressional earmark moratorium — a measure that has been pushed this Congress largely by House conservatives, but a message that also dovetails nicely with McCain’s record on spending issues.

Boehner, who like McCain has never requested an earmark, said he doesn’t buy into what many observers see as an enthusiasm gap between the parties heading into November. Democratic convention delegates greeted Obama as a rock star Thursday night when he accepted his party’s nomination in front of an estimated crowd of 84,000 at Invesco Field in Denver.

He chalked up the increased turnout among Democrats in the presidential primaries to pent up frustration from being out of power for eight years. Boehner traveled the country last month on behalf of GOP incumbents and candidates, and he said the reports of impending doom for the party across the board in the November elections have been exaggerated.

“Republicans are excited,” Boehner said. “It’s a lot of things. I think that the energy fight that we’re in the midst of has really excited an awful lot of Republicans. I think that the Obama European road show really got under the skin of a lot of Republicans. And I think McCain has done a very good job of starting to rally the troops.”

But other Republicans acknowledge that McCain still has further work to do with the base and that the convention must be a key tool in that effort.

“I think the two things that need to occur, one is John McCain needs to energize the base,” said one veteran Republican campaign strategist, adding that it has to be the “vote for me”-type of energizing and not just getting delegates to feel better about McCain as the nominee before going back home. “Two, he needs to articulate his vision and at the same time contrast his vision with Obama.”

Just like during last week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, each day of this week’s GOP event will have a theme.

The schedule of themes for Monday through Thursday is as follows: service, reform, prosperity and peace. Those represent a marked departure from some of the family-values-focused GOP convention themes of the past.

Today’s schedule of speakers features a particularly heavy Congressional lineup.

Among those who are expected to speak will be Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) — who as mayor of St. Paul was a leading force in building the Xcel Center — and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.). The Independent-Democrat has been one of McCain’s biggest boosters, despite the fact that his advocacy of the Republican has raised the ire of some of his colleagues and fellow Democrats.

The chairmen of the House and Senate GOP campaign committees are also expected to have speaking roles today. National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) will highlight several Republican candidates and incumbents, including: retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard, who is challenging Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.); state Rep. Jay Love, who is running for an open seat in Alabama; businessman Chris Hackett, who is running against Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.); former Wyoming state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis, running for the state’s open at-large seat; and state Rep. Erik Paulsen, running for an open seat in the Minneapolis suburbs.

The overall speaker lineup for the convention features a mix of ideological conservatives and moderates, ranging from Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) on the far right side of the spectrum to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, and former President and eBay CEO Meg Whitman representing the party’s more moderate wing.

Palin is expected to speak Wednesday and is likely to highlight her own record of reform and fiscal conservatism.

“The convention is intended to bring all Republicans together, and if you look at the lineup of speakers, every face you see at that podium is going to have at least two things in common: a commitment to helping John McCain become our next president, and a commitment to real reforms rooted in freedom and security,” Boehner said. “Our party believes in a smaller, more accountable government. And this idea that we’ve frankly been at for a long time, of reforming this government to make it smaller, more accountable, you’ll hear a lot about it at the convention.”

When the curtain falls Thursday night, Boehner said he is confident his party will be unified, even if the fear of the alternative continues to be the biggest motivating factor for some.

“Time heals all wounds,” he said, noting that McCain’s support within the party has continued to grow since the conclusion of the primaries. “At the end of the day you’re going to have some Republicans who are you know, eh, they may not be thrilled to death but they’re going to be there and vote for him because the thought of Barack Obama being in the White House is enough to scare even them into voting for McCain.”