Character vs. Issues

The presidential race enters a 60-day sprint.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the GOP Convention.

John McCain at the Republican National Convention

John McCain wanted to make a clear contrast Thursday with Barack Obama, and he did: His acceptance speech was as halting as Obama’s was fluent. With the neon-blue screen behind him, McCain could have been your local TV weatherman—a map could pop up at any moment!—or a contestant on Jeopardy. His call to national service was lost in a rushed delivery, and his crescendo at the end was drowned out by an audience that had been told to stand up but did so before the candidate called on them to “stand up!” (It turns out it’s a little harder to pull off one of these speeches than some think.)

Click on the player below to see Slate’s reaction to McCain’s speech.

If there’s one thing speechwriter Mark Salter wanted you to hear, it came at the end, after McCain told the story of his captivity. “I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice, and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.”

The passage is an eloquent reminder of McCain’s wartime courage—and it is a foreshadowing of the campaign to come. Now that the conventions are over, the presidential race will become a crude, basic battle of issues vs. character. There was nothing adventuresome in McCain’s proposals, which are standard GOP fare. (The main thrust was that whatever McCain’s views, he’ll do the right thing, whatever the right thing may be.) Obama’s strategy, meanwhile, was best framed last week by Bill Clinton, who said that on the two signature issues of this campaign—the economy and foreign policy—McCain’s positions are indistinguishable from those of the deeply unpopular president.

The coming battle will range over the question of change that has been at the center of this campaign since both party primaries: Which candidate can improve the atmosphere in Washington and reshape the institutions of government that people distrust so deeply? McCain has the harder task. He’s a 26-year veteran of the capital, and he’s tied to the unpopular administration. (If you haven’t seen the picture of the two men hugging, someone from the Obama campaign will be happy to hand-deliver one to your house. If you’re not home, they’ll wait.)

McCain tried to distance himself from Bush repeatedly in his speech. He didn’t even mention the president’s name (though he mentioned Laura’s), and he talked about getting the country moving again, even though his party has controlled the White House for eight years. For the rest of the campaign, McCain strategists will keep him away from the current president.

And yet in his speech, McCain borrowed one of Bush’s tactics. McCain used a version of the same argument Bush used against him during the 2000 Republican primaries, when Bush called himself a “Reformer With Results.” The message: McCain was all talk. Now McCain is pitching himself as the reformer with accomplishments against Obama’s mere words. “I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again,” he said. “I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not.”

There are just 60 days to go before Election Day. Subtract the wasted days for the four debates, debate preparation, and a down day here and there, and you get something closer to 40 days the candidates can spend in key battleground states. Just as the calendar is shrinking, so is the map. Millions have watched these two pageants. Now it’s time to ignore much of the country and pay attention to the people in the handful of states that will determine the next president.

Here’s where things stand: If you look at the latest national polling, Obama is up by an average of about five points. That gap may shrink if McCain gets a bounce from his convention, but with each passing day, national numbers are increasingly meaningless. What’s most important now is how things are going in the battleground states. In those states, things look much better for Obama than they do nationally. If you look at the pollster.com map of state polling, Obama has 260 of the 270 electoral votes he needs. John McCain has 186.

If current trends hold, Obama needs only to pick up Virginia and Colorado, two states where he’s ahead, where trends favor him, and where he won in the primaries. Obama is not only ahead in all the states John Kerry won, he’s virtually locked down Iowa, a state George Bush won. (He’s ahead by 15 in the latest CNN poll.)

McCain’s best chances to pick up states John Kerry won in 2004 are New Hampshire, where he is tied with Obama, and Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Obama is ahead just outside the margin of error. Yet even if McCain can reverse the trends in those states, he’s still only at 241 electoral votes. So he also needs to keep Ohio and Florida in the GOP column (polls are even there) and not give up any of the other states, like North Carolina.

In the coming days, we’ll see where the McCain campaign sends Sarah Palin and whether she’s as potent with the crucial independents and moderates McCain needs if he’s going to win. The campaign says she’ll be potent in rural counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, where voters tend to be less affluent, as well as the suburban and more wealthy counties surrounding big cities like Philadelphia.

When the McCain campaign started working on his acceptance speech more than a month ago, it was a more combative work. It had the tone of a gunfighter cornered and outnumbered. Obama was ahead in the polls, and McCain could barely get the press to notice him. In the intervening weeks, it was toned down to include the stories of regular people. A new CBS poll shows why: 44 percent of voters say McCain understands their needs and problems, compared with 60 percent who say that about Obama. McCain mentioned several families that conveniently lived in swing states, concluding his passage by saying, “Their lives should matter to the people they elect to office. They matter to me.”

That’s a message you can expect McCain to emphasize again and again in the next nine weeks as he presents himself as a post-partisan reformer. He’ll leave St. Paul with a unified party and some momentum, and fortunately he’ll be leaving that blue screen behind.