Lots going on at the Democratic Convention

Behind the News with Bill Ritter
August 25, 2008 10:12:06 AM PDT
So much for laying low during the opposition's political convention. There certainly was a time when that was the standard operating procedure. Just ask Michael Dukakis. The former Democratic Presidential nominee was doing his other job during August, 1988, as Governor of Massachusetts, when George H. W. Bush and the Republicans were holding their convention. Dukakis' former campaign manager recently wrote that Dukakis was "picking judges for western Massachusetts" during the Republican's gathering. The lesson, wrote Susan Estrich, is that elections can be lost in summer.

Still, the gentleman's agreement (and, after all, they have been men--this is the first time a woman has made a seriously close race out of the campaign for the White House) has been that while your opponent's party has the floor for the convention, you keep relatively quiet.

Of course, this is the first time that the two conventions have run on back-to-back weeks. And this is a close race. And this is the first time that an African-American has been a major party candidate. And this is the first time that a 72-year-old has been a major party candidate. In other words, all bets are off.

And so that's why we see Rudy Giuliani as attack dog here in Denver, speaking to whomever will listen. (And with 15,000 media members here, there are plenty who will listen.)

And that's why we see aggressive advertising by John McCain during the Democratic Convention. The first ad, up this weekend, took Obama to task for picking Joe Biden and not Hillary Clinton as his running mate. A full-of-moxey ad to be sure. And then this second ad today, featuring a former Clinton delegate who is now voting for McCain. Fair game. But unheard of, before this year, to run during the opposition's convention.

The old "gentlemen's agreement" ended this year, Joe Klein, of Time Magazine and a veteran political reporter, told me. The question is whether Obama will be as aggressive as McCain during the Republican convention.

Many Americans wonder that about the Senator from Illinois. Is he tough enough to fight back? He has in the past been resistant to the notion - which is part of his appeal, of course, being conciliatory and nice. But there are many who say being nice won't win the White House. We'll see.

The problem is compounded by what is happening within the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton is now making all kinds of noise and promises about unity and supporting Obama. But allowing her name to be put into nomination is, many experts believe, not the way to ensure unity. Party officials insist it is - in fact, Gov. Bill Ritter, who I interviewed Sunday, says that this process will guarantee that the delegates walk out unified and motivated.

We'll see.

Today, speaking to the New York delegation, she said, "I understand that the McCain campaign is running ads trying to divide us, and let me state what I think about their tactics and these ads -- I'm Hillary Clinton and I do not approve of that message."

The hard truth is that the last two contested political conventions ended with the nominee losing the Presidential election. In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged the sitting President Gerald Ford. Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.

And then, four years later, a feisty Ted Kennedy challenged the sitting Pres. Carter, who then lost to Reagan in the general election.

History is a good teacher. The Dems hope to buck it in 2008.

Speaking of Kennedy, his presence here tonight will no doubt electrify this crowd. The ailing Senator, battling brain cancer, will show up but will apparently not speak before or after a film tribute - introduced by Caroline Kennedy and produced by documentarian Ken Burns.

And back to Gov. Bill Ritter. When we called to set up this interview, his top aide told our producer, Seung Suh, "I've been waiting for this phone call for three years." It was a good experience, personally. I have a sign someone put on my office door that reads "Bill Ritter for Governor." And Gov. Ritter told me that people always jokingly ask him, "Are you the ABC anchor?"

So it was nice to finally meet the man. He was even game to tape a zany promotion we wrote - maybe you've seen it today - that has us saying:

"I'm Bill Ritter."

"And I'm Bill Ritter, and one of us is the Governor of Colorado."

"Can you guess which one of us isn't? Eyewitness News gets an interview with the man who helped bring the convention here, and who is trying to turn a red state blue."

The Governor yesterday spoke at an "interfaith gathering" which was fairly remarkable for the uncomfortable moment for many Democrats, when a Bishop with the Church of God in Christ took Dems to task for being pro-choice.

"Many of us," said Bishop Charles Blake, "have moral, humanitarian and theological objections to the practice of terminating life as a matter of routine or birth control." The squirming could be heard for miles. Gov. Ritter, who is not pro-choice, told me it shows just how big a tent the Democrats now operate. A clever spin. The truth is that Gov. Ritter and many of his Mountain West counterparts represent a kind of New Democrat - much more moderate, even conservative on many issues like abortion and gun control. And they've been successful in making the Mountain States more "blue" than "red."

Tonight, Michelle Obama takes center stage. The is a firebrand in her own right a tough, independent professional woman whom most Americans know about but don't really know. That will change tonight or at least that's her goal.

Today she told CNN: "My father was a shift worker, he worked for the city, all his life, the same job. And as I've told people, people know my father had multiple sclerosis. My father had a severe disability, you know, no silver spoons, no magic, just parents who tried their best to give the next generation something a little bit more and I think how that impacts the campaign is that that our stories are the quintessential American stories." We talked to New York Gov. David Paterson about Mrs. Obama as well. His take: "People are scared of (her) because they don't know her."

And Obama delegate Helen Foster, a New York City Councilwoman, took it a step further. She's a long-time black activist: "People don't like her because she's a strong black woman and speaks her mind." I'm not sure people don't like Michelle Obama - I think it's too early in the process. But she can go a long ways tonight in helping people make up her mind.

We will have complete coverage of the convention throughout the day. Political reporter Dave Evans is here in Denver, as is our Weekend Anchor Sandra Bookman. Together we'll be reporting on all of our Eyewitness News shows.

And I'll be anchoring our coverage at 5, 6 and 11, including a live interview with Charles Rangel, Congressman from Harlem, the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the senior-most member of the New York delegation.

I hope you can join us. I'll be updating this column later today.


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