By Edward Luce in Denver, Colorado
Published: August 24 2008 15:50 | Last updated: August 24 2008 15:50
A successful presidential convention can give the nominee a five- to 10- percentage point bounce in opinion polls. But as Barack Obama and running mate Joe Biden chart their course across the swing states of the mid-west towards Denver on Wednesday, a large chunk of media attention will be eaten up by Hillary and Bill Clinton.
Many supporters of Mr Obama express private anguish over the prominent role he has conceded to the former president and first lady on three out of the four days of the convention this week. The democratic nominee starts off the convention with an insignificant 1- to 2- percentage-point lead over republican rival John McCain.
Clive Crook: Clintons still loom over Obama - Aug-24Editorial Comment: Obama balanced by veteran Biden - Aug-24McCain seeks to capitalise on discontent - Aug-24Biden to contribute weight of experience - Aug-24Western states key in ‘battle of the suburbs’ - Aug-24Michelle Obama to stress husband’s patriotism - Aug-24Mr Obama’s supporters fear that by stealing part of the show, the Clintons may also limit the opinion poll upside. “They got everything of substance that they asked for,” said one senior Democrat, who was not involved in either Mrs Clinton or Mr Obama’s campaign. “And they also got some extras.”
Tomorrow Mrs Clinton will give a keynote address to an audience of 20,000 in the Pepsi convention centre in downtown Denver. Bill Clinton will follow with his own prime-time address to party delegates on Wednesday. And on Thursday disaffected Clinton delegates will get the opportunity to make a symbolic roll call vote for her nomination.
In addition to these three concessions, Mrs Clinton negotiated the right to show a short film about her life that will air prior to her speech. Showing a biopic is a privilege normally reserved for nominees or special circumstances – such as the appreciation today that will be accorded to Ted Kennedy, the senator for Massachusetts, who was recently diagnosed with a brain tumour.
In addition, supporters of Mrs Clinton have succeeded in inveigling strong language into the Democratic party platform condemning misogyny. Although the party platform is more symbolic than a European-style party manifesto, the wording harks back to the highly-charged days of the primary campaign earlier this year when Clinton supporters alleged their candidate was the victim of sexism.
Many of Mrs Clinton’s supporters, roughly a quarter of whom say they plan to vote for Mr McCain, will be out in force in Denver continuing to argue that the former first lady would have been the better nominee. Among the most vocal is Party Unity My Ass, a pro-Hillary groups whose website trails the catchphrase “We are the ones no one was expecting” – a mocking reference to Mr Obama’s line: “We are the ones we have been waiting for”.
Their resentment has been fuelled by Mr Obama’s decision to have excluded Mrs Clinton from his shortlist of vice-presidential nominees and the fact that he offered the slot to a candidate who garnered only one per cent of the vote before withdrawing from the race. Mrs Clinton, by contrast, won almost half the overall vote.
Yet to judge by Mrs Clinton’s public comments, Mr Obama has little to fear from her address tomorrow: “Senator Biden will be a purposeful and dynamic vice-president who will help Senator Obama both win the presidency and govern this great country,” she said in a statement on Saturday.
The same reassurance is not felt about Mr Clinton, who has continued to convey only lukewarm support for Mr Obama in his public comments. Friends say that privately he is still seething about what he sees as the Obama campaign-inspired portrayal of him as a racist during the primaries.
But even if Mr Clinton swallows his pride and delivers a barnstorming address for Mr Obama, the convention’s message will have been partly diluted. “It is really hard to see why the Obama camp has given such a big role to both Clintons in a year that is supposed to be about change,” said the head of a liberal thinktank, who asked for his name to be withheld.
Historians of party conventions point out that their two primary purposes are to set a course for the general election and to demonstrate party unity to the nation. They also point out that candidates who lose presidential elections have often emerged from a divided convention.
For example, in 1992, George H.W. Bush’s convention was hijacked by Pat Buchanan, the nativist Republican, who launched his “culture wars” from the podium. Or Gerald Ford in 1976 whose relatively bland presidency was put in the shade by Ronald Reagan’s rousing address. Or Al Gore in 2000, who was overshadowed by none other than Bill Clinton. “The Clintons have done this before,” said the senior Democrat. “And they are capable of doing it again.”
But the real test, he added, will come early next week in the post-convention opinion polls.