RNC in a Wrap
I flew to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport the Sunday before the convention began, arriving in the early evening to a metropolitan area clearly prepared for the deluge that would follow. Volunteers were strategically staged throughout my weekly journey, always proving that "Minnesota nice" is an apt description for locals in these parts. I rode their relatively new rail system from the airport to downtown Minneapolis, then walked to the Millennium Hotel which housed the entire Illinois delegation.
The convention began on a down note, as Hurricane Gustav wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, and Monday's activities were scaled back as a result. While the convention was called to order and First Lady George Bush and Cindy McCain made pleas for disaster relief, I opted to skip the somber meeting and instead attended Civic Fest at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I was treated to exhibits featuring Minnesota history, forgotten members of our nation's founding generation, and a history of the American Flag. Also on hand was a bald eagle waiting to be named (I voted for "Franklin," Benjamin of course, who famously advocated for a turkey to serve as our national symbol, limousines used by Presidents Roosevelt and Reagan, a portion of the cabin of Air Force One, and a model of the White House Rose Garden. Also on hand were models of the Oval Office for recent presidents, along with an exhibit on all 43 of our presidents, featuring an audio recording for each.
Undoubtedly the most exciting feature of the fest was the convention merchandise for sale at a pretty penny. Fresh-off-the-press McCain-Palin t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, and yes, pins, were peddled to customers more than ready to buy in bulk. An elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party, co-starred in this mecca of campaign ephemera. Additionally, authors peddled their wares (I picked up a copy of It's the Economy! (Stupid)), Republican organizations strutted their stuff, and this shopper left with a bag full of paraphernalia, hoping there would be room left in my suitcase come Friday.
Monday's detour would yield to a predictable routine for the balance of the convention. A morning breakfast featuring surrogates of the McCain campaign would set the agenda for the day. This was typically followed by afternoon luncheons, day trips to local tourist traps, and an occasional substantive meeting, such as a Google seminar on politics. Since the convention itself was staged in St. Paul, we were forced to board buses for what became an hour-long journey each day to the Xcel Center. Traffic snarled us from every direction as organizers made every effort to keep us away from the protesters who threatened to kidnap one of us.
Upon reaching the convention site, we were whisked through security and screened by Secret Service. On the periphery, attendees were invited to enter the Fox Experience, a behind-the-scenes look at the Fox News Channel's remote operations. Little did I know that this was a precursor of things to come.
As I entered the Xcel Center for the first time it was clear that the entire convention was made-for-television. The luxury boxes surrounding the area was transformed into TV studios, and even the open areas along the concourse were monopolized by local affiliates. On the convention floor, Fox News and CNN claimed prominent positions. While CNN rotated new members of the "best team on television" to their five-person panel, Fox shifted from Shepard Smith, to the O'Reilly Factor, to Hannity and Colmes, and finally Chris Wallace.
Shortly after taking my seat at the 100 level to the left of the main stage, I was asked to fill a seat on the floor and eagerly jumped at the opportunity. I neglected to consider the fact that the Illinois delegation was relegated to back of the floor as states were assigned positions portending to their strategic importance in the Electoral College come fall. Let's just say is that it's clear that Illinois is not in play.
Upon arriving on the floor, I was exposed to a who's who of the State Republican Party. State Chair of the McCain Campaign, Rep. Jim Durkin, presided, with Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson alongside, and former gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka in tow. Speakers throughout the convention climbed a modest stage built as an acknowledgment of Senator McCain's preference for a town hall setting, and this made it difficult for those seated on the floor to even see the orators. Instead, many turned their attention to the adjacent Fox News stage and the A-list of guests who rotated on and off throughout the evening. I met "The Architect," Karl Rove, who was disarming with his kindness and delightful interaction with the crowd, and also Sean Hannity, who reveled in an atmosphere where it was clear he was "playing at home." Dick Morris, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich were but a few of the distinguished guests who shared their talking points with the viewing public.
After speaking on the main stage, many of the campaign surrogates did the cable and network news circuit throughout the arena. For instance, after First Lady Laura Bush introduced her husband for his remote address to the delegates, she ascended to the NBC box right above us for an interview with NBC's Brian Williams. In recent years, the networks have showed fewer and fewer hours of convention coverage, so the parties stage their keynote speakers later in the evening for all to see, namely between the 9-10pm slot. The cable news channels cover more of the convention, yet the great bulk of this features their own talking heads and not the speakers themselves.
After the final speech, attendees board buses once more for a ride back to their hotels, then another to that evening's after party. Most of these are sponsored by major corporations and feature free food and drinks. They are staged at local hot spots, and generally last well into the wee hours of the morning, with parting gifts for fatigued partisans. In fact, Minneapolis went a step further, recognizing that the party need not end at bar time. They extended bar hours until 4am, and from these road-weary eyes, convention-goers took full advantage of this gesture.
I documented each of the major speeches in my previous posts, but it goes without saying that Governor Sarah Palin's was both the most anticipated and the most electric in its reception. There was an electricity in the air on Wednesday, and the keynote speakers, namely Giuliani and Palin, recognized and played off of this. Attendees were greeted with new souvenir items, namely Sarah Palin pins. One simply displayed a pink heart with the words "I Love Sarah." Another, 20,000 of which sold out within an hour on display, read "Hottest VP from the Coolest State" with a picture of the former beauty queen atop the caption. I shamelessly purchased an ample supply of my own.
Buttons proved the staple of honor at this convention, as hardly a soul traveled without at least one fastened to their shirt or sports coat. Wild hats were also en vogue, and Texans stole the show here with their 10 Gallon concoctions, but others preferred to don an elephant or a simple McCain baseball hat in a variety of styles. The Illinois delegation sported paper Lincoln hats, a fashion statement eaten up by the Chicagoland TV affiliates.
The excitement amongst attendees after Palin's speech was palpable, and many felt that McCain's speech would simply be icing on the cake. The "original maverick" delivered arguably the best speech of his career to a national television audience even larger than the one Obama addressed one week earlier. The balloon drop followed and continued for at least 20 minutes as the candidates leaped on and off the stage to greet delegates and acknowledge the entire crowd in the rafters. I managed to catch a piece of confetti, but was deprived of the balloon shower and beach scene of balloon volleys on the floor. Blaring from the speakers was a campaign version of "Raising McCain" by John Rich of the famous country duo, Big and Rich.
The sentiments as I left the hall for the final time was that Senator McCain actually had a fighting chance to win this thing, and lo and behold, his supporters had a pitched battle in store for them over the final 60 days of the campaign. This week's polls suggest that he received a generous post-convention bounce, setting the stage for three presidential debates with Senator Obama and the equally-anticipated showdown between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Palin. Without doubt these developments represent only the latest twists and turns of this historic campaign.
I returned to Chicago thankful for the opportunity to partake in an event I had watched from afar throughout my entire life. While modern political conventions may be little more than coronations for presidential candidates, the daily drama of this made-for-TV event is even more gripping at the center of the arena. It is my goal to keep you at this favorable position as the countdown to November 4 continues. 55 days and counting...