Republicans go home with tails up over 'Sister Sarah'

 

Both candidates have added popular running mates, but it is Sarah Palin who has energised her party's support, writes Denis Stauntonin St Paul

AS JOHN McCain and Barack Obama face into the final 60 days of a presidential campaign they have each been fighting for almost two years, both are emerging from successful conventions with popular running mates at their side.

McCain may have more to celebrate after a convention that was almost blown away by Hurricane Gustav before being caught up in the storm surrounding his choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

The Alaska governor has transformed the mood of the party's activists, energising conservatives who have long felt taken for granted by Republican leaders in Washington.

"The right wing is coming home," former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC. "From the fever swamps and the forests, they're all coming home to Sister Sarah."

Palin will campaign with McCain over the weekend before returning to Alaska next week to bid farewell to her 19-year-old son Track, who is being deployed to Iraq with the US army.

From then on, the Republican campaign is expected to use Palin to rally the base, raising funds and motivating the volunteers who will play such an important part in turning out Republican voters on election day.

Palin's appeal to the base frees McCain to reach out to the independents and conservative Democrats he needs if he is to have any chance of victory. There are 9 per cent more self-identified Democrats than Republicans, so even if McCain wins every Republican vote, he could still lose the election.

The Arizona senator's determination to reach beyond his base was clear during his speech to the convention on Thursday, when he avoided mentioning president George Bush by name and slammed Republican misconduct as well as criticising Democrats.

The name of the Republican Party appeared nowhere inside the convention hall, not even on the backdrop behind the podium, which instead featured changing images of mountains, monuments and major public buildings.

The audience was puzzled when, halfway through McCain's speech, an imposing but unfamiliar building appeared on the backdrop. Bloggers yesterday identified the building as the Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, California, which may have been mistakenly projected instead of the Walter Reed Medical Centre in Washington, where wounded soldiers are treated.

Palin's remarkable performance on Wednesday has calmed, at least for now, Republican fears that McCain had made a disastrous choice of running mate.

The party left St Paul yesterday resigned to big losses in November's congressional elections but convinced that they still have a chance to retain the White House.

The political fundamentals still favour Obama, as big majorities express dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the direction of the country. With his party united behind him, Obama hopes the campaign will focus on issues such as the economy and health care, where Democrats have an advantage.

This week's Republican convention made clear, however, that the McCain campaign plans to highlight character over policy, portraying Obama as inexperienced, insubstantial and unreliable.

Palin has shown a willingness to attack Obama in the harshest terms, comparing him unfavourably to the war hero at the top of the Republican ticket and sneering at the Democrat's background as a community organiser.

McCain's electoral strategy is to win every state Bush won in 2004, when the election hinged on Florida and Ohio. Republicans know they are vulnerable in a number of states they won four years ago, including Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, so McCain is targeting a few big states won by the Democrats last time.

Topping his list are Michigan and Pennsylvania, where white working-class voters backed Hillary Clinton over Obama. Palin could be effective in parts of both states, campaigning as a working mother who understands the reality of life in America's small towns and outer suburbs.

The Obama campaign has yet to settle on a strategy for dealing with Palin, but they have stopped focusing on her lack of experience for now and may sit back for a while in the hope that she will self-destruct.

Obama is avoiding any direct engagement with her, leaving it to female surrogates to attack Palin without risking accusations of bullying or sexism.