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First thoughts: Kicking off the conventions

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
DENVER -- We're about to start an historical two-week convention bonanza -- it's sort of the opening ceremonies of the political Olympics, as we called it last week. Both parties have never attempted to hold their conventions so late. They've gone back-to-back before, but never this late in the process. When McCain gives his acceptance speech in St. Paul, Obama and McCain will have fewer than 60 days to win over voters. While modern conventions have become known for their lack of news, these two could be noteworthy because of 1) the historical nature of Obama's candidacy; 2) the fact that the Clintons will be playing second fiddle (and treated that way) for the first time since '88, causing the potential for drama this week; 3) the very real threat McCain could name a pro-choice running mate, causing Republican delegates to attempt an actual floor flight in St. Paul; and 4) the uncomfortable nature of the GOP convo dealing with an unpopular president; not since '68 and has there been a party so worried about the negative impact of an outgoing president. Ready. Set. Go.

*** Obama's three challenges: The candidate has to do three things with this convention, which arguably might be one too many items on his agenda. One, he needs to fill in the gaps of his biography for the largest audience of voters who haven't yet tuned into the race. Two, he needs to take on McCain more forcefully; there's no doubt the Republicans will use their St. Paul airtime to go after Obama -- big time. Obama chief strategist David Axelrod has made it clear he thought Kerry made a mistake four years ago by ignoring Bush. And three, Obama needs to unify the party. All three agenda items are doable by themselves, but can all three be done in a four-day period? It's a big challenge.

*** What PUMA-on-the-Street interviews might not tell you: Speaking of that last challenge… With so many of Hillary Clinton's most ardent supporters in Denver, is the political press corps here in danger of over-hyping Obama's problem with Hillary backers? Yes, our most recent NBC/WSJ poll showed that Obama has yet to win some of them over, and that (in part) explains why he hasn't pulled away from McCain. But a brand-new Washington Post/ABC poll also had Obama getting more Clinton support than he's ever received since she dropped out of the race back in June. No doubt Obama still has some work to do, and he has two-plus months -- including this convention -- to make the sale. But the point we're trying to make is that perhaps the Dem Party is more unified than PUMA-on-the-street interviews might suggest. Indeed, today's New York Times/CBS poll of Dem convention delegates probably has it right: 60% of Hillary's delegates enthusiastically support Obama, 31% support him with reservations or because he's the nominee, and 5% don't support him at all. But the Clinton folks will have an impact on the media narrative this week. In fact, they already they have -- see Ed Rendell at the media confab yesterday and today's Politico piece by Harris and Allen.

*** What to watch for tonight: Things could start off with a bang. Tonight's primetime speaker is Michelle Obama, who will be tasked to sell her husband to the public. She was one of Obama's best surrogates during the Dem primaries, but Republicans and even some Democrats believe she won't sell with swing voters. So definitely pay attention to her remarks. Also on tap for tonight is a video tribute to Ted Kennedy, but NBC's Ann Curry reported on TODAY that Kennedy is in Denver and might make an appearance at the convention. That could be a nice moment for the Democrats that has nothing to do with Obama or Clinton. Two other speakers to watch tonight: former GOP Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa and Sen. Claire McCaskill, who might have been the single-best surrogate Obama had during the primaries. By the way, where are the Olympians? Didn't the Dems find any Gold medalist to trot out?
*** What if Obama loses? In the latest issue of Newsweek, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg raises a provocative point that's likely to drive the conservative blogosphere bonkers: An Obama loss -- especially in this anti-GOP climate -- will reflect poorly on America, so he believes. "If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth," he writes. "His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: the United States had its day, but in the end couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race." We know this reflects what many in the opinion corps of the left are thinking, but it's the exact WRONG message Democrats should send in campaigning for Obama. In fact, it's this line of thinking that has the McCain campaign believing the press is against them -- and that has rallied the establishment conservatives around McCain, even as they are holding their noses about the GOP nominee. To put it simply, people don't want to be told that casting a vote for the other guy makes us bad. This is how Democrats blow elections, when they talk down to voters, and if the McCain campaign can tap into any resentment that builds over being told that history somehow demands the country elect Obama, we in the press will discover a new silent majority. Of course, McCain doesn't want to win this way, because if he only wins based on backlash, then he may have trouble governing. 

*** Today's convention schedule: Monday's convention theme is "One Nation," and it will include stories about Obama's life. Some of the more notable speakers: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former President Jimmy Carter (via video), Obama sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., former GOP Rep. Jim Leach, and Sen. Claire McCaskill. The primetime speaker in the 11:00 pm ET hour is Michelle Obama. Barack Obama himself will make a video appearance from Kansas City that's tied to his wife's speech.

*** The RNC's response: Carly Fiorina, former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny, and former Wisconsin Hillary Clinton delegate Debra Bartoshevich hold a press conference at the RNC's Denver headquarters to highlight McCain's support among Democrats and independents. The presser takes place at noon ET. Bartoshevich, in fact, is featured in a brand-new McCain TV ad. See below for more on that.

*** Also in Denver: The Democratic state delegations hold their meetings beginning at 9:00 am ET… The Obama camp and the Dem convention hold a press briefing at the Colorado Convention Center at 11:15 am ET… The Democratic Governors Association has a media roundtable at the Colorado Convention Center at 1:00 pm ET… And Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, and others hold a briefing at 4:00 pm ET on the West and what they consider McCain's vulnerabilities in the region.

*** On the trail: McCain begins his day with a press conference in Phoenix, then heads to a fundraiser in Sacramento, and finally travels to Los Angeles to tape the Tonight Show and raise money. Obama holds a town hall in Davenport, IA.
Countdown to GOP convention: 7 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 71 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 148 days
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