The unwelcome guest at the GOP convention

With John McCain trying desperately to separate himself from an unpopular incumbent, Republicans wonder what to do with George W. Bush at their convention.

Published July 9, 2008 12:30PM (EDT)

Barack Obama is getting a lot of attention this week for his plans to deliver his nomination acceptance speech in the largest venue available in Denver.

Meanwhile, Republicans are wishing they could schedule one particular convention speech in a secret location, preferably at about 3 a.m.

That speech would be the one by the president of the United States.

As Kenneth T. Walsh of U.S. News and World Report explains, GOP convention planners are very focused on how to stage Bush's obligatory speech in a way that creates the maximum distance, in time and in visibility, between the president and his would-be successor:

First is the question of how to give President Bush a forum as the party's two-time nominee but at the same time keep McCain at a distance from the unpopular incumbent. The answer, according to McCain aides, will be to have Bush give a speech on the first night of the convention -- a Monday -- and let him have the moment to himself. McCain isn't scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the convention site, until Tuesday at the earliest, after Bush leaves, which means that, at this point, the two men won't be seen with each other that week.

There's not a whole lot of precedent Republicans can draw upon. Yes, in 2000, Al Gore's campaign was very worried about Bill Clinton's presence in Los Angeles, but Clinton, whose own job approval ratings were robust at the time, came through with a solid speech that didn't upstage his vice president. And in 1988, George H.W. Bush was happy to bask in Ronald Reagan's aura.

For an analogous situation to the one GOPers face today, you have to go all the way back to 1968, when Lyndon Johnson was a relatively unpopular and very divisive lame-duck president. He didn't show up at the convention at all. There are no signs that Bush would do McCain that sort of favor this year.

Indeed, everything we know about George W. Bush suggests that he will want to use his convention speech as a ringing defense of his administration, going right into the jaws of those 80 percent "wrong-track" poll numbers, before bestowing his dubious endorsement on McCain. If that happens, the pressure on the nominee to clearly separate himself from Bush in his own acceptance speech, with all the base/swing dilemmas that would involve, will be enormous.

As an old convention hand myself, I don't envy the Republican planners their challenge.

Once they figure out how to deal with Bush, there's another little problem to solve: Dick Cheney.

By Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

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John Mccain R-ariz. Republican Party