Night Three: Biden Doesn’t Wow, But the Convention (Finally) Gains Momentum

The good news for the Barack Obama camp: Joe Biden has no more big speeches to deliver between now and Election Day.

In what was the Democrats’ best night of the first three, Biden capped the evening with a heartfelt speech emphasizing his middle-class roots that was marred by an irregular rhythm and a series of verbal slip-ups. He said “millions” instead of “billions.” He praised Obama for working on an Illinois state health care program that provided coverage to 150 children and parents, not 150,000. Biden blasted John McCain in a predictable manner: for championing tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, for misjudgments regarding foreign policy. There were good and touching moments, such as the tribute to his mother and his empathetic recognition of the everyday challenges confronted by Americans facing hard times. And he tied the need to help working-class families to Barack Obama’s appeal: “He has tapped into the oldest American belief of all: We don’t have to accept a situation we cannot bear. We have the power to change it.” Biden covered the bases but did not rock the house. He was no Bill Clinton. He wasn’t even a John Kerry. (See Kevin’s somewhat more generous take here.)

But the Obama campaign had an insurance policy. After Biden finished, Barack Obama made an unscheduled appearance and restored the energy level to the room and the convention. Working the Pepsi Center like a talk show host–has he been taking lessons from Oprah?–Obama seized control of the evening and promised a great night on Thursday, when he will accept his party’s presidential nomination at Invesco Field.

The third night of the convention–Biden aside–presented a more coherent message than the previous evenings, which were dominated by the obligatory tasks of undoing the rightwing attacks on Michelle Obama and satisfying Hillary Clinton and the Hillary Hold-ons. On Thursday, it seemed as if the Obama campaign was finally able to get down to business: making the pitch.

The evening program opened with Melissa Etheridge connecting “God Bless America” to progressive favorites, such as “Born in the U.S.A.” Then came a series of Iraq veterans and other former warriors who rammed home the point: George W. Bush and John McCain have truly screwed up the foreign policy of the United States. This was McCain’s turf: national security. And the Democrats hit it hard by bringing to the stage Tammy Duckworth, a paraplegic Iraq vet, who has as much standing as anyone to question and criticize McCain’s judgment on Iraq–past, present, and future.

But even though the Democrats had billed the evening as national security night, it was more than that. With Clinton playing the good cop, and Kerry playing the bad cop, the Obama campaign presented both the case for Obama and the case against McCain in vivid and explicit terms. Clinton’s speech was another masterpiece and a reminder that he could be a major asset in the weeks ahead, if he cares to be–and behaves himself.

Largely because of Clinton and Kerry, who was also at his best, it seemed that the convention finally gained momentum and produced emotional energy. But the Democrats still have trouble critiquing McCain without going overboard in celebrating his service and heroism–and that could prove a problem in the next two months. Biden the supposed attack dog felt compelled to say that McCain’s courage still amazes him. He took his shots at McCain, but there were no memorable blows. Did the Obama campaign defang him? Or is he hesitant to go full-throttle on a fellow with whom he shares “a friendship that goes beyond politics”?

The Republicans, though, have no reluctance in blasting Obama as practically a traitor. McCain has repeatedly said that Obama puts his own political ambition ahead of what’s good for the country, that Obama would see Americans lose a war in order to win an election. Yet the Democrats often limit their criticisms to McCain’s policy ideas, not McCain the man. Kerry came closest to doing the latter when he challenged McCain’s integrity, accusing him of flip-flopping (remember that?) on issues for political gain. Still, more than the previous nights, the Democrats moved toward a more even mix of positive and negative.

Night Three effectively set up the grand finale. On Thursday evening, Obama will appear before a crowd of 75,000. The Clintons, Michelle, the attacks on McCain, the anti-Bush vets–none of that will matter. There will be one story: the guy in the spotlight. He will stand it alone, and what he does will define the convention more than all that has come before.

(Photo by flickr user used under a Creative Commons license.)

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