ST. PAUL — Now the country has a clearer picture of its choices.
The first back-to-back political conventions in half a century gave Americans a blur of late-summer political activity that nominated the two major-party presidential candidates, unveiled the vice-presidential running mates, and laid out their visions for the future.
This all set the stage for a two-month sprint to Election Day that will give voters a choice between two competing stories of who can best change the country's unpopular course — and how they would change it.
"The essential question of this campaign is who's got a better plan, a better agenda to move this country forward and fundamentally change it from the economic and foreign policy failures that we've seen over the last eight years," Obama told reporters on his campaign plane this week.
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"We need to change the way government does almost everything," McCain said in his convention speech. "I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. My friends, I have that record and the scars to prove it. Sen. Obama does not."
No one doubts the country wants to change course. Americans are sour on the war in Iraq, anxious about an economy with rising prices and unemployment, disappointed in President Bush and scornful of Congress. Four out of five Americans say the country's on the wrong track, and nearly as many disapprove of the way Bush and Congress are doing their jobs.
The country has voted only once in the past 60 years to keep a party in the White House three elections in a row. The 1988 election of Vice President George H.W. Bush came when incumbent Ronald Reagan was popular, the country had peace and prosperity, and people wanted, in effect, a third Reagan term.
There is no such sentiment today.
"It's a tough, uphill fight for Republicans," said Vin Weber, a former congressman from Minnesota and a top Republican strategist.
"Our only hope is that John McCain can convince voters he will change things. The more he can rebrand the party, from a Bush party to a John McCain party, the better the Republicans will do."
McCain may have had some success at the convention, first with his surprise pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Palin, a newcomer to the national stage and a Washington outsider who rose in Alaska politics by challenging the ethics and records of fellow Republicans, may help McCain reinforce the notion that he would shake things up in the federal government.
"Change is coming," McCain said in his acceptance speech in a none-too-subtle attempt to say he doesn't want to be tied either to Bush or the Congress where he's served.
Palin also helps McCain shore up the party's conservative base, which doesn't like him very much; she generated newfound enthusiasm among volunteers needed to knock on doors in battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Her presence should give McCain extra maneuvering room to court suburban independents without alienating the party's base.
On core issues, McCain and Obama will joust over who can best end the war in Iraq and who can best boost the economy.
In Iraq, McCain vows to withdraw U.S. troops, but only when assured by commanders that the Iraqis can secure the country themselves. Obama wants to set a firmer deadline to withdraw most of the troops.
On the economy, McCain promises to make permanent the Bush tax cuts he once opposed. Obama vows tax cuts for those making less than $200,000, but would let the Bush tax cuts expire, and taxes increase, for those making more than that.
On energy, McCain stresses a do-it-all approach to energy, including allowing offshore oil drilling, nuclear power, cleaner coal technology, and wind and solar power. Obama stresses conservation and alternative fuels, but says he'd accept some offshore drilling if necessary to reach agreement with Congress and nuclear power if safety were improved.
Yet for all his effort, McCain will not easily escape being tied to Bush, particularly with his Senate record of voting to support Bush's policies.
"They have a hard time making the argument for change," said Obama adviser Robert Gibbs.
He added that McCain could fall into the same trap that Hillary Clinton did in the Democratic primaries if he thinks his experience will trump Obama's. "We learned in the primaries, if you're the experience candidate in a change election, you bet on the wrong horse."
There's no doubt that, as the candidate from the out party, Obama offers more changes in policy.
And as an African American and the vanguard of a new generation, he looks like change.
But he still has to convince Americans that he offers the changes they want — and that he can implement them.
Heading out of the conventions, it appeared to be a close contest over which side was selling itself as the more compelling and convincing voice of change.
Gallup's daily tracking poll showed McCain starting to get the traditional "bounce" of support that a convention usually generates. The poll, taken over three evenings, showed Obama leading McCain by 48 percent to 44 percent, a margin half as big as the 8-point lead Obama had opened up after the Democratic National Convention.
"It now appears the Republican National Convention may be helping McCain to recoup some of his losses, though with Obama's current 4-point lead, the entire convention period to this point has still been a net plus for Obama," Gallup's analysis said Friday.
But Gallup cautioned that the three-night survey included only one night of polling after Palin's much-watched convention speech — and none after McCain's. The first full sample taken after the convention speeches will be released Monday.
Ultimately both camps expect the post-convention bounces to fade, as they usually do, and the race to return to a neck-and-neck competition, one that will be fought out in battlegrounds such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt; Virginia in the mid-Atlantic; North Carolina and Florida in the South; and Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico in the Mountain West.
Alaska, once on Obama's target list for a possible steal from the Republicans, is now out of reach with Palin on the Republican ticket.
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