Republicans gather tomorrow for their presidential nominating convention in St Paul, Minnesota, galvanised by John McCain's shock choice of a first-term woman governor as his vice-presidential running mate, but fearful that the whole elaborate show could be overshadowed by a major hurricane.
Coming 12 hours after Barack Obama's commanding acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, the announcement that Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska only since 2006, would be on the Republican ticket in November guarantees that new ground will be broken by this already astounding campaign. For the first time ever, either a black man or a woman will hold one of the two highest offices in the land.
These breakthroughs in race and gender are matched by breakthroughs in geography as well. Never before have the two most peripheral American states been so directly involved in a presidential battle. Obama was born in Hawaii, regarded by most Americans as an island holiday paradise in the Pacific. As for Palin, until her shock selection by McCain on Friday, she had for less than two years been Governor of a place whose inhabitants refer to the 48 states south of Canada as "Outside". Both Hawaii and Alaska entered the Union only in 1959. But now, less than half a century later, they will provide either a president or a vice-president.
Even before the stirring climax to the Democratic show in Denver last week, McCain was bound to have a hard act to follow. Such is the interest in Obama that the TV audience for his acceptance speech hit 40 million, more than watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
There are already signs of a decent post-convention "bounce" for the Democrat, as Hillary Clinton supporters return to the fold. Gallup now puts his lead at 8 per cent, compared with a dead heat before the convention, after a spell in which Obama lost momentum and McCain seized the initiative. But now the underlying national political mood is again reflected in the polls.
The combination of a mightily unpopular Republican incumbent in George Bush, an almost equally disliked war in Iraq, a lousy economy and a record 80 per cent of Americans who believe the country is "on the wrong track" was always going to make this election especially tough for McCain.
Now this near-perfect political storm has been joined by a real meteorological storm. If Hurricane Gustav slams into the Gulf Coast as forecast on Tuesday – perhaps even at New Orleans, where Katrina struck exactly three years ago – precious media coverage be diverted from the Republican jamboree.
Whatever happens, Gustav cannot but evoke memories of Katrina's shambolic aftermath, the biggest domestic blot on the Bush record. As delegates party next week, a city might be engulfed – again. Small wonder that despite denials by top Republican officials, talk persists that St Paul could be postponed, or its opening delayed.
During the primaries Bill Clinton warned Democratic voters not to "roll the dice" by choosing Obama over his wife Hillary. Now McCain has decided to do precisely that in his choice of running mate. The veteran Arizona senator has never been afraid to stick his neck out. But Palin is surely his biggest political gamble ever.
Perhaps, it will be a winner. At the very least, the appearance in St Paul of Palin – whose name was barely on the pundits' radar screens as Obama held the national spotlight on Thursday evening – will breathe life into what had seemed set to be the dullest of conventions. Conceivably, it might redraw the parameters of the entire campaign.
This weekend, Republicans at last have something to be excited about. Instead of contemplating a "same old" ticket of two white men in matching suits and ties, they will now be led into combat not just by McCain, who celebrated his 72nd birthday on Friday, but also by an intriguing newcomer.
Palin is three years younger than Obama, a former local beauty queen who hunts caribou and is now the mother of five children. Within a couple of hours of her name emerging, online sales surged of her hitherto obscure biography Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down. Publishers have already ordered an extra print run.
In political terms, she embodies the break with the past that McCain must convey to voters if he is to survive the poisonous association with Bush. Her conservative views will help to energise religious voters. As an outsider with executive experience, she strengthens the "anti-Washington" credentials of a ticket led by a man who, despite his reputation as a maverick, has run nothing larger than a senate office.
Best of all, she ought also to boost McCain's appeal to independents and women – above all, Hillary Clinton supporters, a fifth of whom still insist they will not vote for Obama. She is also pro-life and pro-gun, qualities that should give her appeal among "Reagan Democrats", working-class whites in vital industrial swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan who have been known to vote Republican.
But the risks for McCain are at least as great. For one thing, the choice of Palin largely takes off the table the Republican "experience" argument, contrasting the battle-hardened senator against the raw Obama. Unlike Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who had been favourite for the job, she has no particular economic expertise. As for her national security qualifications, they make Obama look like Dwight D Eisenhower.
Moments after she was unveiled at a rally in Dayton, Ohio on Friday, McCain staffers were making laughable efforts to boost her credentials, pointing to her role as commander-in-chief of that redoubtable force known as Alaska's National Guard, and providing pictures of her visiting US troops in Iraq, brandishing an M-4 rifle to the camera.
The fact, however, is that if McCain wins, this woman of 44, unheard of by 98 per cent of the country barely 48 hours ago, will be standing a heartbeat from the presidency. McCain appears to be in rude health, and maintains a hectic pace on the campaign trail. Nonetheless he has a history of melanoma skin cancer, and would be the oldest ever man to enter the Oval Office.
Is Palin really ready to take over as commander-in-chief should anything happen to McCain? "This isn't wise judgement; this is political panic," one top Democratic strategist said – and many non-Democrats may agree.
Unknown quantities can result in nasty surprises. On Friday, the cable TV channels were scrambling to find anyone who knew anything about Alaska. But when the media horde descends, what might pop out of the woodwork? The state, whose senior senator Ted Stevens was last month indicted by federal prosecutors on graft charges, is ground zero in the US for political scandal. The McCain staff has presumably vetted Palin thoroughly. The campaign is promoting her as a doughty warrior against corruption, and her home state approval rating is high. But in Alaska these days, you never know.
And for all the Palin coup de théâtre, the momentum midway through the convention fortnight rests firmly with the Democrats. The party left Denver far more united than when it arrived, with the Clintons publicly and squarely back on board. Sincere or insincere, Bill Clinton remains the best campaigner in the land. And whatever they insist right now, it's hard to imagine even the most diehard Hillary holdout actually voting for the conservative McCain and his even more conservative running mate.
In the end, this week will belong to McCain, not Palin – just as last week, despite the never-ending Clinton soap opera, belonged to Obama. McCain is no orator; no one expects him to blow the country away with a speech. But the convention offers him his best, and perhaps last, opportunity to persuade Americans that he is not just four more years of George Bush. The schedule has been tailored to that end. The bad news – Bush and Dick Cheney – will be got out of the way fast, with relatively low-profile speaking slots for the President and his even more widely disliked Vice-President on Monday's first night. Both will be out of St Paul before the candidate himself arrives.
Thus liberated, the McCain team will wheel out the party's stars, among them Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, the defeated primary contenders Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Romney, and now Sarah Palin. But even with the hockey mom from Alaska, the risk remains that every human event in St Paul will be dwarfed by a hurricane called Gustav.
Behind the rhetoric
In his powerful acceptance speech, Barack Obama went out of his way to address the charge that he is all rhetoric and no detail. Here is what we learned about the Democratic candidate's policies.
Proposes an $80bn tax cut for the poor and middle class, affecting "95 per cent of all working families". Would repeal Bush tax cuts for the top 1 per cent income bracket. Payroll taxes (national insurance) would be raised for those making over $250,000 per year. Estimated annual cost: unclear.
Obama's plan aims at affordable healthcare for all, providing cover for the 47 million Americans currently without insurance. Cover for children would be mandatory. Estimated cost: at least $120bn.
Promises "to end US oil dependence on the Middle East in 10 years". Would permit some new oil drilling in the US, as well as help for Detroit to retool to produce more energy-efficient cars. Favours a "safe" expansion of nuclear power, and a 10-year investment plan for renewable energy. Claimed cost of investment: $150bn.
Supports higher pay for teachers; in return teachers must meet higher standards. In a reprise of the post-war GI bill, promises help towards a university education "for those who serve their community and country". Estimated cost: $18bn.
Goal to have all US combat brigades out of Iraq by summer 2010, within 16 months of taking office. Freed-up resources would be shifted to Afghanistan. Says any withdrawal plan is subject to events, however. On Iran, promises tough "direct diplomacy" to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
No more of the "tough talk and bad strategy" of George Bush. Pledges to restore the country's moral standing so that "America is once again the last best hope" of humanity. This means a more patient approach to crises, and greater reliance on diplomacy. Almost certainly would shut Guantanamo Bay.
Rupert CornwellReuse content