Fifteen hours after the gavel came down, ending the Republican National Convention, bits of confetti bearing tiny images of John and Cindy McCain were still fluttering from the rafters at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Work crews clambered along the trusses and scaffolds high above the convention floor, dismantling lights and other equipment, and knocking leftover confetti clumps to the ground in gentle flurries of red, white and blue.
Outside, a big crane took down the bright red "CNN Grill" sign from the restaurant across the street, replacing the original "Eagle Street Grill" sign in its place. The giant Fox News video screen was packed away, and torn oversized posters of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity lay in the damp streets, run over by forklifts and flatbed trucks.
The parties are over. Now the real race begins.
And it begins, essentially, right where it left off two weeks ago: in a dead heat.
CBS News polled voters before the Democratic National Convention, and found them favoring Barack Obama, 45% to 42%. After Obama's wildly successful Denver convention, he had stretched his lead to 48-40. But after Sarah Palin's ecstatically received acceptance speech Wednesday, CBS found voters equally divided, 42-42. The Gallup Poll's daily tracking gave Obama an eight-point lead after his convention, 49-41. In the latest Gallup survey, he still leads, but only by four points, 48-44.
Some other interesting numbers: Barack Obama's acceptance speech a week ago was the most-watched convention speech in American history - but just for one week. John McCain tied that record Thursday night. Obama had more than 42 million viewers, far more than the finale of American Idol or the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Sarah Palin came close on Wednesday night, falling just a few hundred thousand short of Obama's audience. But McCain caught Obama in the ratings race Thursday, with a larger viewer audience on the commercial networks but a smaller one on PBS, ending up with the same 42.4 million pairs of eyeballs that Obama had (well, maybe not the exact same eyeballs but the same total number of them!). And, on average, more people watched the three main nights of the Republican convention than the four nights of the Democratic one, even though there are millions more registered Democrats in this country than Republicans, and the RNC was interrupted by Hurricane Gustav.
This means that yes, there is unprecedented national interest in this presidential election. People are tuning in, and not just based on their own ideological point of view. They want to know what these candidates are all about, even if they've already made up their minds. They are intrigued by Sarah Palin, and they want to know more about where Obama and McCain stand on the issues.
For the third presidential election in a row, we have a race that is ridiculously close and endlessly fascinating. It didn't used to be this way. But Bush-Gore, Bush-Kerry and now McCain-Obama have captivated the nation, and here's hoping that translates to record turnout in November, too. (I never quite understand why people don't vote; I have never failed to cast a ballot in a primary or general election since I turned 18. If you care, then you should vote. If you don't help choose your leaders, then your answer to whether your taxes should go up or down, your schools should get better or worse, or your nation should go to war or not, is a shrug of the shoulders).
The presence of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin on the tickets this fall should boost that turnout. Obama will obviously galvanize African Americans, and, presumably, younger voters, although we expect their numbers to rise every four years and they rarely do. Palin will motivate the GOP's conservative base, and should bring more women to the polls, but so far she seems to have activated the bases of both parties. A lot of Hillary Clinton supporters and other Democratic women are absolutely appalled by Palin. That CBS News poll found 69% of Hillary supporters saying they plan to vote for Obama now; it was only 58% a week ago. And Obama brought in a record $10 million in donations in the 24 hours after Palin's big speech, a simply stunning amount, while the Republican National Committee took in only one million (as of Friday, McCain can no longer raise money, since he is accepting public financing of the general election campaign, but the RNC can still fundraise on his behalf. Obama reneged on his earlier pledge and bailed on the FEC money, so he's free to raise, and spend, as much as he wants).
Palin may wear thin on the campaign trail, or she may become America's Sweetheart. Some people in Alaska hate her but most seem to love her. Voters may not care about the truth behind some of what she said Wednesday night (that governor's plane she "put on eBay"? Nobody bought it. The state ended up selling it through conventional means, and at a loss of half a million dollars. And you already know that she supported the Bridge to Nowhere before she opposed it, and that she sought millions and millions of dollars in pork-barrel earmarks as both Mayor of Wasilla and Governor of Alaska). Many Democrats seem oblivious to what Obama really intends to do as president, other than "change" things, whatever that means. Will we really get more substance from these candidates in the next 59 days, or will this devolve into another superficial, personality-driven beauty contest?
One thing seems clear: Governor Palin isn't running for Miss Congeniality this time (that's what she got in the Miss Alaska Pageant in 1984). She's an Alaska-tough, bare knuckles brawler, and if the Democrats are smart, they will essentially ignore the fact that she's a woman, and treat her like one of the boys. If they handle her with kid gloves, they're doomed.
I still think this race comes down to McCain vs. Obama, not Palin vs. Obama and Biden. The debates will be huge, and we never know what completely unanticipated moment or event could turn the election one way or the other. A terrorist attack, another international incident, an awkward slip of the tongue by Obama, a stiff moment on the stump by McCain, some candidate's impolitic utterance caught on a blogger's videocamera...who knows what surprise lurks in the shadows of this campaign? We do know that the Obama organization is as sophisticated as any we've ever seen, and the election may well be won by whichever side mounts the best get-out-the-vote operation.
It will be exciting, and it will be close. As President Bush might say...Bring it on.