As John McCain prepares to accept his party's presidential nomination tonight, Democrat Barack Obama is 5 to 8 percentage points ahead in the latest polls, making the Republican an underdog but hardly a long shot. This lead is real but not insurmountable. Obama is ahead in a lot of states by relatively small margins.
Presidential nominees have few opportunities to speak directly to the American people. Debates are reactive and conducted on terms dictated by the sponsoring organization and the questioners. For better or worse, the media filters the news coverage. Advertising is of limited value. And most independent voters, who tend to focus on the contest relatively late, are not the core audience of the cable news show. So, the conventions give nominees their best shot at reaching the electorate.
The fact that this abbreviated convention doesn't feature a night devoted to paying tribute to the GOP's sitting president surely helps McCain. At one point earlier this week, when Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on Louisiana, holding a convention that met only its legal requirements seemed like a possibility. A vital opportunity to transmit McCain's message would have been lost.
Tonight, McCain will deliver his acceptance address in person, not by satellite as was contemplated when Gustav was rewriting the schedule. McCain will get much of the upside of the convention, the messaging opportunity, without what surely would have been a downside -- close association with President Bush. This won't win the election for him, but it does make lemonade out of lemons.
With his speech, McCain will have a chance to frame his candidacy and his vision for the country in a way that he won't have in the three presidential debates. If, as the saying goes, the answer depends on the question, this is McCain's best chance to frame the question in a way that makes him the answer.
His selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin demonstrates incontrovertibly that McCain sees his chance of winning as hinging on voters perceiving him as an agent of change. If the choice this year is the status quo versus change, even a scant glance at the polls shows that voters will opt for change. McCain has to represent chance -- a less risky version.
It's highly unlikely that Palin, who staunchly opposes abortion in all cases and is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, is going to attract many former supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, many other Democrats, or for that matter a large chunk of independents.
There is some evidence that Palin has energized her party's base. To the extent that McCain won't have the field organization that Bush enjoyed, grassroots enthusiasm will be particularly important. Turnout matters. The McCain organization does not match the 2004 Bush operation in a single state. That is one big reason having a revved up base really matters to the GOP.
But if every Republican in America votes, that would still not be enough for McCain. If he is to win, he must get the lion's share of independents, plus pick off some Democrats. That's why the decline in the number of voters identifying themselves as Republicans is so important. Simply replicating Bush's performances among Republicans and independents on a percentage-point basis is insufficient for McCain to win.
At the conclusion of tonight's speech, viewers should not ask whether McCain has energized his party's base. Republicans should pray that that has already happened. Instead viewers should ask, "Has John McCain made a case for his candidacy that's sufficiently persuasive to entice 15 percent of Democrats to defect and to get a clear majority of independents to vote his way?"
The answer to that question will likely tell us who will be the next president.