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Democrats get lift from convention; now it's Republicans' turn

Steven Thomma
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
(Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

DENVER - Barack Obama and the Democrats had their moment, and it was a quite a moment. Now America pivots to John McCain and the Republicans.

Midway through the rare back-to-back political spectacle - the first time the two major parties have had their conventions on successive weeks since 1956 - Obama appeared to have boosted his chances of being elected president.

His rousing speech before 84,000 rapturous Democrats on Thursday evening put an exclamation point on a convention that helped unify and energize his party.

Turning from the soaring rhetoric that marked his primary campaign, Obama worked to flesh out some of the change he promises, such as cutting taxes for the middle class, expanding health care and ending U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

He also took his fight forcefully, directly to McCain, naming him 19 times and framing a fall campaign to cast the Republican as out of touch with working people and a shadow of President Bush.

"It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it," Obama said in one preview of his fall campaign.

Beyond framing Obama's campaign against McCain, the Democratic National Convention helped heal the rift left over from the long primary battle between Obama and the Clintons. And well-delivered speeches fleshed out a friendly story line of Barack and Michelle Obama as a loving and normal American family to compete with the menacing caricatures of e-mail smears and satirical magazine covers.

Early results suggested that the four-day extravaganza was working. Gallup's daily tracking poll showed Obama gaining 6 points even before his mega-speech Thursday night.

Still, Clinton peace aside, polls indicate that Obama may never reach all of Hillary Clinton's white-working class supporters. And his convention bounce may soon give way to McCain's, as the Republican grabs back the spotlight, first by announcing his running mate, who's expected to be unveiled Friday in the battleground state of Ohio, then with his Republican National Convention next week in St. Paul, Minn.

Indeed, even as Obama aides reveled in the glow of a convention they said had helped their candidate and laid the groundwork for the fall campaign, they conceded that any bounce would soon give way to the realities of an electorate that's still closely divided.

"It's a close election now. It's going to be a close election after the conventions. It's going to be a close election probably until the end," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist.

Still, after a slow start, Obama and the Democrats scored.

First, Michelle Obama delivered a well-received speech designed to assure skeptical Americans that she, her husband and their daughters are a normal American family.

It was necessary, not least because neither Obama is well-known nationwide, and compounded by her comment earlier this year that she was proud of the country for the first time in her adult life, as well as by his comment that working-class people cling to God and guns out of economic frustration, a viewpoint that Clinton and others called elitist.

Second, Clinton endorsed Obama anew. And former President Bill Clinton's full-throated endorsement Wednesday may have done even more to heal that divide.

"We could not be more thrilled," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said.

"Voters around the country have learned more about who Barack Obama is, the values he holds, his promise to the American people that he's going to be just a relentless fighter for the middle class and change the way Washington works."

The week also energized party members, especially the thousands from Colorado who attended Obama's speech Thursday night and will be enlisted to knock on doors and work in the battleground state.

"Coming out of here, we're not just unified, our party is electrified," Plouffe said.

Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College, said that Bill Clinton "did a fair amount" to heal the bad feelings between the rival camps and that Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, was very effective in attacking McCain's political strength: his long record and experience in national security and foreign policy.

Still, Schier said, the convention was just one step, and it will be up to Obama to close the deal. "Obama has to sell himself. That's his big job for the next two months," Schier said.

Obama gained this week, as the Gallup daily tracking poll showed him pulling into a 48-42 percent lead over McCain on Thursday. That was a 6-point gain from the 45-45 percent tie registered just before the convention started, and it didn't yet include the full impact of Bill Clinton's speech Wednesday or Obama's on Thursday.

That's not unusual. Since 1964, every candidate in both major parties has seen his support jump coming out of his nominating convention except for Democrats George McGovern in 1972 and John Kerry in 2004. The typical bounce is 5 points, according to Gallup.

Obama's bounce could be unusually short-lived.

First, McCain will step on Obama's message with his own choice of a running mate. Then, McCain heads to Minnesota for his own convention, only the fourth time in history - after 1912, 1916 and 1956 - that the two parties have had their national conventions back to back. And he could get his own bounce in just a week.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, agreed that the Democrats helped themselves this week, but he cautioned that they still face formidable challenges.

"They gave a lot of good speeches. They have taken some steps to repair the Obama-Clinton schism," he said.

"But only time will tell how successfully they've done that. There are a lot of blue-collar voters who are simply not going to vote for Barack Obama, for reasons of ideology, culture, his past associations. We may not know how many until Election Day."

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