[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/09/02/art.rnc.convention.gi.jpg caption="Three challenges for the GOP this week."]
As Republicans gather tonight for their convention, they face three looming challenges, in my judgment. Would welcome your thoughts:
(1) Regain the momentum in this presidential campaign: Two weeks ago, Republicans had successfully set up this election as a referendum on Barack Obama and his readiness to be president. And John McCain was surging upward; he had the "Big Mo," as George H.W. Bush used to say. But in the wake of a successful Democratic convention and controversies swirling around McCain's selection of Sarah Palin, the conversation has shifted dramaticallly. Now, as this convention starts, a growing number of voters are asking: is the McCain-Palin ticket up to this? In short, it is becoming a referendum now about the GOP ticket, not the Democratic ticket. And as those questions arise, the Democrats are rising: recent polls show them, on average, with about a 6 point lead - up from a virtual tie two weeks ago. So the Republicans have to reverse that tide here.
(2) Bolster Sarah Palin: The Palin choice represented a huge risk at the time, and even as it has energized the Repubican base (especially evangelicals), it has raised new doubts about McCain's judgment and decision-making while raising other questions about Palin herself. I agree with the view that her children should be left out of this, especially by the press and by partisans on both sides. But Americans are swapping views about Palin - and about McCain - and as best I can tell (especially from CNN viewers who are filing on our blog sites), there are at least as many weighing in against her as in favor of McCain. Sarah Palin's speech will introduce her to millions of Americans for the first time - and this is an emormous opportunity for her - but in my judgment, the real tests will come when she no longer has a prepared script in front of her and is out there talking and answering questions from voters - and yes, the press. And one more thing: no more shoes can drop!
(3) Bring new focus to this campaign. McCain's message became crisper in August as he emphasized the dangers of the world, how prepared he is, and how unprepared he argued that Obama is. Now that he has named Palin, however, he has shifted focus to reforming Washington and his advisers are saying that experience has never been the central question. As a result, this Republican campaign has become blurred. (And where does our economic troubles now fit in?) It is not even clear that many voters will continue to see McCain as a maverick: again and again in the past, he has bucked his party orthodoxy - that's why independents came to admire him so much - but in choosing his vice president, he gave up his real preference (he wanted Lieberman or Rid ge) and bowed to the social conservatives' strong preference for someone else like Palin. The upside is that he has definitely charged up his base - but his focus has become more blurred. At this convention, McCain and company must reframe their key arguments - and come out of St. Paul as charged up as the Democrats did out of Denver.
Can all this be done? Yes, the Republicans are very good at staging conventions. But the tide is now moving back to Democrats, and the Republicans now have three nights to reverse it.
Do you think they will? Can they? Or do you think Democrats will continue to hold an upper hand when this convention is over?