Roundtable: A Look Back At The RNC The last of the convention confetti has fallen, and the general election season is officially underway. Which candidate came out on top? NPR's Tony Cox moderates a special roundtable with two journalists who were on the scene in St. Paul this week.

Roundtable: A Look Back At The RNC

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TONY COX, host:

The last of the convention confetti has fallen, and the general election season is now officially underway. How did the conventions compare and which candidates, if any, came out on top?

For more, we have a special convention wrap-up roundtable with two journalists who were on the scene in St. Paul, Minnesota. Kevin Merida is an associate editor at the Washington Post. Ron Claiborne is a national correspondent for ABC News. Ron, Kevin, nice to have you guys.

Mr. KEVIN MERIDA (Associate Editor, Washington Post): Hey, thank you.

Mr. RON CLAIBORNE (National Correspondent, ABC News): Thank you very much.

COX: Kevin, let me come to you. Number one, the Republican Party was slow to embrace Senator McCain. The speeches are over, the convention is over. Has he won over his Republican base?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, it really is quite a remarkable story, McCain and the Republican Party. I mean, there was a period where he was close to being a pariah in the party. And at one point there were overtures from Democrats that - for him to switch over. I mean - and here he is accepting the nomination. I think Republicans are just amazed at their good fortune, and how close the polls are, given that, you know, 80 percent plus of the American people say that the country is in the wrong track and President Bush has the lowest approval rating of any president in modern history. Given that and the race so close, I think that they're relieved and excited that they have an actual chance to win the presidency again. And so McCain is the representation of that chance.

COX: Let me ask you, Ron, and to give me kind of a brief answer, because a break is coming up. I was watching last night, and while I know that the party was supportive of him, there seemed to be moments when delegates were not connecting with him. Am I right about that?

Mr. CLAIBORNE: You did get that sense on the floor, but I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that, as Farai was saying earlier, John McCain is not a great speaker. He gave probably as good a speech as he is capable of giving, but in the middle there, early sections, and he was going through what was essentially a reprise of his stomp(ph) speech, I think he lost the audience. He got them back at the end with his story about his experiences in Vietnam, but he kind of disconnected with them about midway through.

COX: That speech went a lot longer than I think some people had expected. It was almost an hour, wasn't it, Ron?

Mr. CLAIBORNE: I think it was about 40 - 45 minutes. That is a long, long speech. That's a tough length of time for anyone to speak. McCain - you know, again that's not his forte, but he did as well, I think, as he can, and the audience was pretty enthused there at the end.

COX: All right, Kevin, Ron, I'm going to ask you to just hold on. We're going to take a short break. We'll continue our discussion about the aftermath of the Republican National Convention right after this short break. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is News and Notes, I'm Tony Cox. We're back now with our convention reporters roundtable with Kevin Merida, an associate editor at the Washington Post, and Ron Claiborne, a national correspondent for ABC News. Let's get right back into it. Guys, let me come to you, Kevin, with this.

The big story line, one of the big storylines all week, of course, was Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska chosen to be the vice-presidential running mate. Now, my question is, how did that storyline change from last weekend when we first were introduced to her, to now, after all the speeches and the digging by the press into her background?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think that there was a period where it felt like you were maybe in the Dan Quayle era. You know, you may remember when President Bush - the first President Bush chose Dan Quayle, and coming out of New Orleans there were questions about the National Guards' record and lots of questions that people put that maybe Bush would have to drop him.

I think there was a sense that - was wondering whether that she would survive. I think, after her speech, now only did she electrify the audience, and there was, I guess, some backlash to media inquiries. It seemed like it turned around and it looked more and more like a great selection for Republicans and some relief. I mean, it's still - she still has to go out in America, and see how people test her publicly, and, you know, to withstand the kind of scrutiny that voters will give her, not to mention a national traveling press corps. But right now, I think, that they're pleased with their nominee.

COX: Well, would you say, Ron, that the whispering - and I believe that's probably the most accurate way to put this - the whispering about her from party faithful, whether or not the risk is high with her on the ticket. Has that whispering quieted now?

Mr. CLAIBORNE: I think with that speech, she's quieted within the party those critics. The Republican Party seems energized and supportive, energized like they really haven't been by John McCain himself right now. This is all dependent, of course, on no more revelations.

If everything that's come out which seemed a little odd or peculiar, or even suspicious at best, all there is, then the party is satisfied with this vice presidential pick. The question is, can she extend her appeal outside of that base? She's gone a long way in solidifying - we can say - that base which was - a lot of which was suspicious of McCain's conservative credentials. They're happy with the selection, but will this change the essential dynamics of the overall race? I think most people at the end of the day, (unintelligible) November 5th, are going to be voting for the top of the ticket.

COX: One of the questions that I have, Kevin, listening to both Sarah Palin and John McCain is this. She came out attacking, he came out much softer. Is that the tack that you imagine both will continue to have as the campaign moves forward, her attacking, McCain taking the more statesman-like role?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think it's a high-risk strategy. I mean, certainly, it's a - an historic role for vice presidential candidates to be the aggressors, and taking on their opponents. So, she's performing a role that other vice-presidential nominees have performed, but, you know, we don't know. We are in uncharted territory of how that is going to play. She's a woman. Whether it will seem her aggressiveness will seem shrill, will she - will then maybe expose herself to, you know, getting attacked back? And I think right now, she's put Democrats in kind of an awkward place of knowing how to run against her.

I mean, we've already - some people are hoping that Hillary Clinton would step up for the Democrats and take her on, but, you know, you think about Joe Biden who is kind of an elder statesman in the party. I mean, he doesn't want to come across as looking like he is beating up on a woman. There were a lot of sexism charges during the Democratic primary campaign. So, I think there is still this kind of sorting out across party lines of how each candidate's going to run.

COX: One of the things that the Democrats seemed to have really glommed onto, Ron Claiborne, is this issue of community organizing, and whether it's of value or being devalued by the Republicans. And Rudy Guiliani made reference to it.

Certainly, Sarah Palin poked fun at it, and the Democrats under Obama seemed to be jumping on that really hard, really quickly.

Mr. CLAIBORNE: Well, I was in the arena when that first came up, when Guiliani brought it up and then Palin hammered it home. It's almost like this is some kind of - well, code word for something. It sound - at the very least, it's a code word for a quaint and meaningless liberal exercise.

At the worst it's - and it may have some other implications that I won't try to interpret at this point, but they seem to get a real kick out of that. And the Democrats are firing back, saying, as you would expect them, what in the world is wrong with community organizing, community organizing in the sense that Barack Obama did. It means trying to help people who in many cases could not help themselves, but I think for the Republican base or conservatives, it's something that they could - well, we saw it, they gleefully scoff at it. I don't know if this is going to have a lot of credence with the independents and moderates who John McCain and Barack Obama need to win this election.

COX: One of the issues, Kevin, was whether or not, with Sarah Palin and with the message of the GOP that they could reach into the Clinton supporters, and pull them to their side. Based on what you saw, what you heard, people you've spoken to, what sense do you have about how effective the GOP will be at doing just that?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, that was the high risk in picking Palin in the first place. I mean, she's not traditionally vice-presidential nominee standards very experienced at all, having been a small-town mayor, I know that I'll get criticism now from all of the people attacking the media elite, but here's the thing on that. You know, at the time, you know - she was a small town, whereas Barack Obama was a - you know, Barack Obama was a state senator in a district that was, you know, 27 times the size of Wasilla, Alaska. He was a community organizer when he was 24 years old for three years. I think, they're taken her, hoping that she will be able to cut into, you know, independents and suburban women.

She's going to go to a lot of places and battleground states where there's a toss-up. There's certainly a lot of disaffected Hillary Clinton Democrats, but I think that you saw at the Democratic convention, that that is not such a great percentage. The issues are still - there's a big gulf between where most women are on issues, whether reproductive rights and other concerns, and the Republican Party has positions in its platform, and positions that both Sarah Palin and John McCain support that are really at odds with where a lot of women are.

COX: You know, one of the things that occurred last night what she talked about briefly, Ron, and that is the protest. There was some disruption inside the convention hall. There were people gathered out on the streets. There have been some stories about the protest, but hard to gauge how significant they were, and how much of a factor they were, at least as a person watching it on television.

Mr. CLAIBORNE: Well, there were certainly some pretty - some sparks flying outside of the convention hall, and there's that brief protest early on in McCain's speech. I - we're hearing reports of hundreds of people being arrested outside, and if you look at some of the video, in fact, there were miniature recreations, on a smaller scale of course, of the kind of thing that was happening in Chicago with the Democratic Convention 40 years ago, some pretty ugly altercations there.

COX: What was your take on what you saw, as far as co - protesters were concerned? Did you even talk to any of them, Kevin?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, they - I could not get close enough to them, but I mean, they were asserting, and certainly you could see there was some rather aggressive policing, in particularly with the use of tear gas on people, rather extensively and aggressively. I guess the determination was made that they were going to subdue these protests, and keep them suppressed, but there was, again, some pretty aggressive police tactics used out there.

COX: I've got little less than a minute, Ron Claiborne. I want to give the last question to you and it's this. What do we look forward to, now - between now and November, coming from either campaign, in terms of trying to get their message across?

Mr. CLAIBORNE: Well, you know, I think we've seen the - the pattern has been set that McCain is going to try to brand Barack Obama as someone who is out of touch, does not have leadership skills. Barack Obama is going to try to pin on John McCain that his administration would be a third Bush term. We've seen that. I think where this election may end up turning, there's really only a few events in the course of this long campaign which can really drive a boulder as one way or the other. With the convention, those are over. Selection of the vice president, choosing a running mate, that's over. I think the debates, the three presidential debates and there'll be a lot of attention this year on the vice presidential debate on October second, that could determine how this election goes. Who is perceived as the winner of those series of debates.

COX: Kevin, Ron, thank you guys both very much.

Mr. MERIDA: Thank you, Tony.

Mr. CLAIBORNE: Thank you.

COX: That was Kevin Merida, an associate editor at the Washington Post and ABC correspondent Ron Claiborne.

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