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POLITICS

Eye of the Storm

John McCain has spent the past week trying to stay visible and seem relevant--talking about the economy and lobbing verbal grenades at Barack Obama.

This is a strange time in the presi- dential campaign, a hiatus between the intense skirmishes for the nominations and the battle for the White House.

It is a time when voters have largely tuned out the campaign to get on with their lives before returning for another round of the total immersion that they experienced during the hard-fought primary season. Sure, voters glance at the evening news or the front pages of newspapers, but they are not nearly as engaged as they were during the heat of the nomination contests or as they will be once again during the national party conventions and the general election sprint.

 

For Barack Obama and John McCain, beyond the fundraising, planning, and hiring for the general election, and beyond the vetting of potential running mates, this is an opportunity to focus on central objectives. For Obama's team, that means demonstrating that he is experienced enough in the ways of Washington and international politics to be president. And for McCain's camp, that means showing that he isn't too old, isn't living in the past, and can focus on things unrelated to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama is more than midway through his tour of the Middle East and Europe, a trip designed to generate images of the freshman Democratic senator standing next to foreign leaders, projecting a presidential image. That's important. Swing voters need to be able to visualize him as president and to see him dealing as an equal with the world leaders whose ranks he seeks to join. So far, Obama has made no major missteps during this important journey.

McCain has spent the past week trying to stay visible and seem relevant--talking about the economy and lobbing verbal grenades at Obama any time that his junior colleague appeared to make, or almost make, a gaffe or expose a weakness. Trailing narrowly but steadily in national polls, McCain needs to wait for Obama to make a mistake--or needs to try to force one--then exploit it. This election is about whether Obama can make the sale, taking advantage of the voters' demand for change and their preference for Democrats these days. If Obama cannot close the deal, McCain will win by default, the beneficiary of voter reluctance to embrace Obama.

 

Despite a flurry of rumors early this past week, neither candidate appears on the verge of announcing a running mate. Indeed it is a good bet that neither is particularly close to settling on one. Proper vetting takes time, and the presumptive nominees don't want to make a mistake on one of the most fateful decisions of their lives. For the rest of us, the veepstakes is a fun parlor game. For Obama and McCain, this is very serious business.

Presidential nominees typically announce their choice in the two weeks before their national convention--at least that's been the case for the 14 conventions that I've attended. The selection that made the greatest dramatic impact was George H.W. Bush's choice of Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate in August 1988. Bush made the announcement on the weekend before the Monday kickoff of the Republican convention.

Even though Bush has been widely second-guessed for tapping Quayle, his timing was exquisite: It generated a great deal of excitement about what long ago became mostly a pro forma ceremonial gathering. All the buzz around the convention hall was about the surprise pick. The moment was actually quite fun, rivaling major convention addresses, such as those by Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1980 and then-Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York in 1984, and even President Reagan's dramatic 1984 video that transformed Lee Greenwood's song "God Bless the U.S.A." into a political anthem.

Television can capture the electricity of a good convention, but it can also convey the boredom that often grips delegates, journalists, and assorted hangers-on. When the network anchors say, "Ho-hum," you can almost hear TV remotes clicking to check out Law & Order SVU or a rerun of The Candidate.

 

Watch for the presidential nominees to make strategic vice presidential picks, choices that say something, keeping in mind that voters are not like pizzas or Chinese food that can be easily delivered. Voters aren't delivered; they are convinced. They weigh factors and make choices. And they like choices that are interesting. So my guess is that the candidates will make their picks in August--the middle of the month for Obama, late August for McCain--and they will be interesting choices that will entice voters to linger in front of the convention coverage, instead of saying, "Yeah, just what I thought," and clicking over to Law & Order.

This article appears in the July 26, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.

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