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The Lustig US election survival guide: the Conventions

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Robin Lustig | 00:19 UK time, Monday, 25 August 2008

I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this - but it's finally time to take the US presidential election campaign seriously.

It's eleven weeks since the last update in this series of survival guides: the Democrats are now gathering in Denver to anoint Barack Obama and Joe Biden as their candidates; the Republicans will convene in a week's time - and then the campaigning will start for real.

So here are answers to five frequently asked questions:

1. Do we really have to take any notice of the conventions? Er, yes, probably we do. Admittedly, they are mainly hot air, noise and balloons; as long ago as 1924, the journalist H.L. Mencken described them as "vulgar, ugly, stupid, [and] tedious". But there's a good piece here which explains why they do matter. The Democratic party strategist Mark Penn says: "The party that wins the battle of the conventions will likely win the election."

2. So what's going to be the big deal in Denver? Where do I start? Speeches from both Bill and Hillary Clinton ought to be worth hearing (and keep an eye on the die-hard Hillary enthusiasts when her candidacy is put to a vote) ; the newly-named vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden will have a chance to start stirring things up a bit (he has a reputation as much more of a political bruiser than Obama); and then of course, the Big One: Obama himself on Thursday, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

3. Why did Obama go for a veteran white male Washington insider like Joe Biden, when he's been insisting for the past year or more that he represents a chance to change the way politics are conducted? Some possible answers in this excellent piece from Politico.com.

4. By the way, what's John McCain up to? Doing rather well, I reckon. His attack ads seem to be having an impact; the Obama campaign has been forced on the defensive. And he plans to announce his choice for vice-presidential nominee on Friday, carefully timed to knock the Obama acceptance speech out of the headlines. (Mind you, not being able to remember how many homes he owns was not exactly his greatest campaign moment.)

5. So who's going to win in November? Well, I said back in early May that I thought it'd be Obama. But I'll be honest with you: I'm not as confident now as I was then. The latest polls show him pretty much neck and neck with McCain - the latest aggregate poll from RealClearPolitics.com shows him with a statistically insignificant 1.7 per cent lead. Why isn't he further ahead, given how unpopular President Bush and the Republicans are? Could it be (whisper) because he's black? Paul Harris writes in The Observer: "When Obama speaks on Thursday to more than 80,000 people in Denver's football stadium he will also reach a television audience of millions of Americans. They will look into the face of a man who could be their next President and for the first time it will be a black face." Or could it be that to many voters, he just looks too young, too inexperienced, and too pleased with himself?

If I have one piece of advice for him, it's to get rid of those crisp white lawyer shirts and start trying to look more like a regular guy.


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