AMES, Iowa -- With their party's nominations for president long since decided and roll-call votes mere formalities, the political conventions have largely become like infomercials to many Americans over the past two decades. Yet some Iowa State University political experts say this year's conventions may play a more important role in the tight presidential race, with Barack Obama and John McCain separated by five points or less in the latest polls.
The gavel will sound to open the Democratic National Convention in Denver in one week on Monday, Aug. 25, while the Republican National Convention will begin the following week on Sept. 1 in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
A critical issue for Obama will be his treatment of primary rival Hillary Clinton and her more than 1,600 pledged delegates. Obama needs Clinton's primary supporters in the general election and yet recent polls have shown that many have yet to commit to him.
Last Thursday, both candidates agreed that Clinton's name will be placed in nomination for a roll-call vote at the convention -- honoring her historic campaign for president as a woman candidate. That was probably a concession Obama was forced to make, said Dianne Bystrom, director of ISU's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.
"It was almost a no-win situation for Obama in some ways," said Bystrom, who has researched Clinton's presidential campaign. "By putting Clinton's name into nomination, it seems to many people that there's still a split in the campaign. On the other hand, so many of Clinton's supporters want her name placed in nomination because of the historic nature of her campaign, so if it didn't happen, then those women would have another reason to not support Barack Obama."
The convention and the Clintons
But the roll-call vote isn't the only Clinton concern for Obama at the convention. Both his former rival and her husband -- former President Bill Clinton -- will be featured speakers on two nights of the convention.
"Many people I know feel that this is going to be another Hillary and Bill Clinton 'dog and pony show' -- and I agree with them," said University Professor of Political Science Steffen Schmidt. "We know that the Clintons believe the candidacy actually was theirs and Obama took it away with such things as race, letting John Edwards hide his secret affair through Iowa, and playing a sexist campaign. Obama had no choice. But the Clintons should have more class than to butt in on him. When Ted Kennedy did that at a Democratic convention, Jimmy Carter, the incumbent, lost the election."
It seems unlikely that Clinton will join Obama as his running mate on the Democratic ticket. The ISU experts see his most likely choices being Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), former House Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.), Sen. Joe Biden (Del.), retired Gen. Wesley Clark, and governors Ed Rendell (Pa.), Bill Richardson (N.M.), or Kathleen Sebelius (Kan.).
"I think he (Obama) needs to reassure a lot of Americans, who don't pay much attention to politics, that he's up for the job -- that he's ready to take over, as Hillary used to say, on day one," said Ray Dearin, an emeritus professor of political science. "And his choice of a running mate will help, to some extent, I'm sure."
As big as the Democratic running mate decision will be, it may be even more important to McCain, who will turn 72 just before the convention. The ISU political scientists see the top candidates being former rival and Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.), Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Minn.), Gov. Charlie Christ (Fla.), Gov. Sarah Palin (Alaska), former Director of Homeland Security and Gov. Tom Ridge (Pa.), former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina -- chair of McCain's Victory '08 Campaign -- or possibly even a real "wildcard" in Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), who ran as Al Gore's running mate on the Democratic ticket in 2000.
McCain VP choice walks the fine line
McCain's decision may be made to either shore up his Republican base, or reinforce his role as a party maverick.
"McCain's really in a tricky situation," Bystrom said. "For him to win, he's really got to reach out to social conservatives, but still yet remain that maverick."
But ultimately, McCain's biggest role at the convention will be to convince voters that his experience is more valuable than Obama's charisma and fresh ideas -- and get the post-convention "bounce" as the general campaign process gears up.
"I think it's more of an advantage than a lot of the political operatives claim to go second in the conventions," said Dearin, who will be an alternate delegate at the GOP Convention -- the seventh time out of the last eight where he's been either a delegate or an alternate. "It's a great advantage. The party in the White House has the opportunity to see what that challenger party is going to do -- in terms of running mate, in terms of platform and the way they're positioning themselves."
Let the general election games begin.