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For Democrats, Batting Last May Offer An Edge But No Guarantee

The Obama campaign logo hangs from the ceiling inside Time Warner Cable Arena at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday.
The Obama campaign logo hangs from the ceiling inside Time Warner Cable Arena at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday.

Any sandlot ballplayer knows the value of batting last in baseball, but what is the value of doing the same when you're running for president of the United States?

It has long been a tradition of our presidential election system that the party in the White House holds its nominating convention after the opposition party. It is as though the challenger gets to make a case, and the reigning champion gets to respond.

Tonight we will commence the response portion of that program.

Mitt Romney and the Republicans appear to have benefited from their convention last week in Tampa, enjoying a modest boost in the polls and a general freshening of their aura. They featured a great many women and Hispanics onstage and brought off the spectacle without a notable hitch (if you do not count the outlier of Clint Eastwood's monologue).

Romney has not been transformed in the public eye, but his image has been refurbished. What had been a rather ragged primary performance is now in the past. Romney is now seen as the candidate of business and opportunity, the candidate who picked Paul Ryan as his running mate and unified the party for the assault on the incumbent.

This is no small feat in public relations, yet this is what out-party conventions do. It can be done exceedingly well, as when in 1992 the Democrats made their case for Bill Clinton and Al Gore so effectively that independent candidate Ross Perot suspended his campaign. Perot, who would later re-enter the contest, said then that "the Democrats are getting their act together."

An even more classic example was Ronald Reagan's nominating convention in 1980, where he and his party rhetorically repudiated not only incumbent Jimmy Carter but the direction of the country over the previous half-century.

When the first convention serves it up this hot, the incumbent convention often suffers by comparison.

But in-power party conventions have a traditional function, too, and it is largely about countering the message of the out party. The chance to go second is one of the great edges in sport. "Getting last raps" means you can "spot" an opponent a lead and then come storming back to overcome it.

This is what the Obama convention will seek to do, defining the "We Built That" GOP as shortsighted, self-serving and self-interested. It will say the pride that entrepreneurs rightfully take in their success is fine, so long as it does not ignore the role of the public sector or the contributions of ordinary working Americans.

Second conventions have often been little more than premature victory laps for the incumbent. Clinton had an easy slide through his second convention in 1996, a gathering remembered mostly for the number of times the delegates did the dance called the Macarena. Reagan's second convention in 1984 was four days of celebrating the economic recovery and embellishing Reagan's personal legend. The Nixon convention of 1972 was a smug affair, too, and the LBJ convention of 1964 was a tribute to a master politician at the zenith of his power.

Still, batting last is no more a guarantee of victory in national politics than it is in the national pastime.

George W. Bush used his 2004 second convention to good effect, putting Democratic Sen. Zell Miller on the stand to testify against his own party and letting California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani deliver the big crowd-pleasing speeches. Yet Bush barely squeaked by in November and could have easily lost.

His father, the first President Bush, had a lackluster second convention in Houston in 1992, failing to answer the edge and verve of that year's Democratic thrust. Here, again, the most memorable moments were not the candidate's own but rather the red-meat offerings of others, such as Pat Buchanan, which tended to drive away independents.

In 1980, incumbent Carter could scarcely glean much political gain from his second convention, as he was still dealing with Ted Kennedy's primary challenge. A sizable fraction of the delegates were there for Kennedy, who stole the show and then offered only the most tepid of endorsements.

Obama's renomination event will probably fall somewhere between these poles. It is not likely to remind anyone of those rollicking demonstrations of dominance cited above. But Obama should be able to touch the basic bases that both presidents Bush did and attack the notion of an "enthusiasm gap."

From all indications, the partisans on hand in Charlotte are at least as enthusiastic about Obama as those in Tampa were for Romney. The real gap the incumbent must deal with is the contrast with the idealistic fervor and inspirational tour de force that defined his first campaign in 2008.

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