Convention Delay Could Hamper McCain Efforts

But Some GOP Operatives Argue TV Ratings Don't Matter

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AdAge.com) -- The Republican National Convention finally kicked off in full yesterday as questions linger about whether the one-day delay will have an impact on the party's ability to get its message across.

Network anchors returned to St. Paul from covering Hurricane Gustav to see Sen. Joe Lieberman endorse Sen. John McCain's pick for vice president, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson rip into the Democratic standard bearer, Sen. Barack Obama.

Whether those two speakers are going to help the Republicans drive their points home may be answered later today when the first convention viewership numbers come out.

At a forum here yesterday sponsored by National Journal, several pollsters said Democrats had used their convention in Denver to successfully counter Team McCain's charges that Mr. Obama was just a celebrity, helping to fill out voter knowledge of the candidate's stances and boosting his standing with independents. After the forum, one pollster said the shortened convention could challenge Republicans' efforts to respond to Democrats' claims.

"There is no question that a shortened convention limits the amount of time with which Republicans can make their case," said Brent McGoldrick, VP-business consulting for the public-relations firm FD. "This year is a year when they need more time to make their case, not less time."

Mr. McGoldrick said the problems will increase if viewership fails to match that of the Democratic convention.

"By definition if viewership declines, there isn't the momentum into Thursday night and McCain's speech. Fewer voters means fewer votes, and it becomes harder and you have to resort to other channels to get the message out there."

The worst prospect for the GOP would be that a shortened convention and lower viewership would translate into less of a bounce in polls for Mr. McCain, said Mr. McGoldrick.

But Republican consultants said they aren't worried.

"I don't think it has much impact," said Mark McKinnon, who headed the McCain ad team until the primaries ended. Mr. McKinnon spoke after an event sponsored by Politico and the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. He said the day missed "was a day where the Republican leadership got to show they were engaged responding to a natural disaster. I think that was a good thing for John McCain and the Republican administration."

Mr. McKinnon also warned about putting too much stock in convention viewership numbers.

"You can talk about the Obama crowds and that's a reflection of voter enthusiasm, but if you go back to the George McGovern days ... he had much more voter enthusiasm in crowds and lost the election, so attention and viewership doesn't translate into votes."

Alex Castellanos, a principal at National Media, Alexandria, Va., one of the biggest of the GOP ad shops, said the delay does hurt but it may not matter much in the long term.

"When you are running a 100-yard dash, you don't want to stop after the first 10 yards and restart. It steals momentum," he said. "Unfortunately a hurricane put us on hold and it's much harder to get restarted again. But it was the right thing to do."

He said the McCain campaign needs to get on with its message.

"The McCain campaign has been criticized for not having a sharp enough message except 'Don't vote for Obama.' Now it is pretty clear what their message is: Change Washington and this country can achieve great things. That's what the Palin pick says. She's a reformer. She's one of the few governors in the country that has turned a corrupt government on its head. She's stood up to oil companies. It's a pretty powerful story. She's the point on that spear that can make this campaign focus on changing Washington so that we can restore this country's strength and confidence."