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.
Hurricane Gustav has damped the Minnesota party slightly, but if the GOP can manage to distance itself from the Bush administration and successfully appeal to moderate and independent voters, they can easily score points against the fractured Democrats. How do they do that? They must highlight the fact that Republican leadership and conservative values are larger than the past eight years. They must also drive home the fact that Sen. McCain has been effective as a leader for decades, reaching across the aisle to get tangible results for all Americans, not just Republicans.
The McCain camp must not allow the Democrats to hang the troubles of the last eight years around the party's collective neck. After all, the Democrats have controlled Congress since 2006. McCain must remind Americans that we have been in the midst of a uniquely troubling period in our history, one that included terrorism within our continental borders. For effective change and progress to occur, the GOP has to convince voters that it will take an experienced president—not vice president—to guide the ship, especially as foreign crises, including the war and oil prices, continue to impact us domestically.
The task is not as formidable as it may seem. If the symbolism-packed revival convened by the Democrats in Denver last week was not enough to sway disaffected voters like Ann Price Mills, the task may not be that formidable at all.
Lenny McAllister is a political contributor who appears on "Fox News Rising" every Monday in Charlotte, N.C. " His blog is called "We Down with GOP."