The Conversation in St. Paul

The still-fractured Democratic Party has given the GOP plenty to work with.


It was striking, the tears that welled up in the eyes of Texas delegate Anne Price Mills as she spoke of her devotion to her candidate at the Democratic National Convention.

She was talking to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on the convention hall floor. The way she gushed about inspiration, experience and presidential credibility seemed emblematic of the emotional enthusiasm that built over the week for the party's history-making nominee, Barack Obama.

Except for one problem. "I will vote for (Hillary) Clinton," the woman uttered with sad defiance. She went on to say that she would not vote for McCain, but her weepy bitterness underscored a fundamental problem for her party this fall.

How can a candidate that has so fragmented the Democratic Party truly be a champion of unity and change? This will be a theme repeated throughout this campaign, whether Republicans are able to St. Paul, Minn. this week or not. A key to the GOP victory strategy will be to rally the faithful and woo Obama-wary fence-sitters around John McCain. The McCain campaign made clear its intent to go after leery Democrats by choosing conservative Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as its vice presidential pick.

While Democrats may view their party's convention in Denver as one that brought unity and momentum going into the fall, many non-Democrats are likely reveling in a sense of amused curiosity. Certainly there was much between the lines of the show in the Mile High City that the Republicans can use to their advantage.

Take President Clinton's speech. On Wednesday night, the only Democratic president since Saturday Night Fever stated that his candidate was one that he truly believed in, one that put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling for women. Yet, of Obama's "...first presidential decision...", the former president said that the junior senator "hit a home run" by selecting Joe Biden, a man that not only failed miserably (twice) at running for the presidency, but who also soundly criticized Obama's readiness to lead as president come January 2009.

Are we really to believe that President Clinton's harsh comments toward Obama have become water under the bridge to many within the Democratic Party? The rift is still there. It was very evident in Mills' comments to CNN. It was visibly under the surface on stage in the comments of Sen. Clinton, President Clinton and even Sen. Biden—three respected American leaders who repeatedly hammered at Obama's lack of experience during the excruciatingly long primary season. Sure, they praised him dutifully at the convention. But their previous statements are readily available for any curious voter—and for Republican campaign ads.

This election has all the makings of a 2004 repeat. Four years ago, everything seemed to line up for the Democratic Party to win back the White House after one term of service by an unpopular president. In the end, it became an election that the Democrats lost, more than an election that the Republicans won.

That might not be the way Republicans want to win, but we'll take it. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll of delegates to the Democratic Convention found that less than 10 percent of the delegates questioned before the V.P. selection was announced wanted Sen. Obama to select Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate. Just 10 percent. Obama could have cemented the image of change with a ticket that featured the first African-American president and the first woman vice president. Instead, he avoided making a bigger historical statement by picking a man that has been in Washington since Obama was in elementary school.

The move to bring Biden onto the ticket was a huge gamble and a telltale sign that the Democrats see significant challenges on the horizon. In essence, Obama went after a running mate that was a Democratic version of John McCain, experienced in foreign policy, a bit of a maverick, a free (if not smooth) talker. But the Democrats' attempts to blame the current climate in Washington for the country's ills will be difficult to sell with Biden's fingerprints all over the past 30 years in Congress.