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Between conventions, both sides still looking for a breakout moment

It's halftime in America, as Clint Eastwood once said.

Halftime, that is, for that part of America that's glued to the television set (or, now, the smartphone screen) whenever political conventions are underway.

The Republicans have fled steamy Tampa, Fla., happy merely to have escaped Hurricane Isaac with their nominee and their message intact. The Democrats are streaming into leafy Charlotte, N.C., nervous about polls that show the presidential race tied and anxious to deliver a rebuttal before the GOP's pitch has a chance to set in.

#DNC2012: Join Doyle McManus live from Charlotte Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. PT

A modern political convention is like a jittery, wonky Bohemian Grove encampment populated by politicians, campaign pros, celebrities (Eastwood and the Oak Ridge Boys for the Republicans, Eva Longoria and James Taylor for the Democrats) and, of course, hordes of media. It's ringed by security, fueled by electronic gossip and pulsing with tension more than excitement: Whose reputation will be made tonight? Whose might be ruined? It's fashionable to say conventions don't matter any more, but they are still one of the few occasions when a candidate can actually fashion a breakout moment — even if most of them don't succeed.

The GOP convention, it's safe to say, wasn't Mitt Romney's breakout moment. It rallied conservative Republicans around a candidate who, for many, was at best their second choice. It allowed the Romneys, husband and wife, to try — with stories about pasta and tuna fish dinners — to connect with ordinary people. But the GOP campaign's third big goal, giving voters a concrete sense of what a President Romney would do, was mostly left undone.

Now it's President Obama's turn, and his job is equally hard. He needs to give voters a persuasive answer to the question Paul Ryan asked in Tampa: "Why would the next four years be any different from the last four years?"

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It's an asymmetrical contest, as political scientist Samuel L. Popkin points out in a wise book, "The Candidate," that campaign managers on both sides have been studying all year. "The challenger gets to offer the promise of change," Popkin notes. "The incumbent has to defend the idea of more of the same."

The president's mission is to escape that trap — to avoid getting stuck defending an unsatisfactory status quo. "Obama must persuade people he is on a path that will pick up steam and give us a better future," says Popkin, who advised Bill Clinton in 1992 and Al Gore in 2000.

Here's a halftime report on the two conventions so far, with a prediction or two for the Democrats' week ahead:

VIDEO: Watch the RNC speeches

Enthusiasm gap: The GOP made some likability headway; can the Dems outdo them? The challenge is rekindling the elan Obama enjoyed in 2008, especially among women and young voters. So far, most of their enthusiasm (like the Republicans') comes from the negative side: the fear of what a Romney presidency would bring. Obama can't run on Change, but can he revive Hope?

Please stop saying that: All week long, Republicans delighted in repeating "You did build that," their response to Obama's mangled speech about businesses that got government help. If you're playing the drinking game, expect many, many Democrats to parrot Obama's favorite attack phrase: "the failed policies of the past."

Heartthrob: Condoleezza Rice thrilled Republicans with a speech that was smart, fiery and not wonky at all. Democrats expect the same from Elizabeth Warren, the author of the best version of the "you didn't build that" meme, who's running for the Senate in Massachusetts.

Character witness: The GOP's best was Ann Romney. Arguably the most important speech in Charlotte will be the one from Obama's not-so-secret weapon, Bill Clinton. Expect the former president to argue that Obama has faced tougher times than he did. Just don't expect him to say that Obama's done a better job.

Boldest theme: Ryan and other Republican speakers argued that it's time to ask Americans to make sacrifices — a word rarely heard in earnest in recent campaigns. They didn't say, though, that the sacrifices they're proposing fall more on the poor (who lose benefits in the Romney-Ryan budget plans) than on the rich (who get new tax cuts). Look for the Democrats to pick up the meme and say they're bold enough to ask sacrifices too, but only from the upper crust.

Osama Bin Laden: The late terrorist won't actually be in Charlotte, but it may sound that way. Expect Democrats to remind voters several times a day that Obama arranged Osama's demise. Republicans mentioned it maybe once all week.

Clint Eastwood: He won't be in Charlotte either, but his ghost will. Eastwood nearly derailed the GOP program Thursday night with a rambling monologue that featured an empty chair. (He did it to make sure his Super Bowl Chrysler commercial, with the line about halftime, wasn't mistaken as an endorsement for the Democrats.) Thanks to Eastwood, no celebrity will ever be allowed near a podium again without a preapproved script. Too bad, at least for the entertainment value.

Best surprise: Don't look now but both sides' relentlessly negative campaigning may veer onto positive ground, at least for a while. GOP pollster David Winston says surveys show that voters are hungry for someone to tell them how he plans to make the country better. "Both campaigns are being asked to do something they haven't done so far: Advocate a positive outcome. Propose a future and sell it. The candidate who does the best job of that is going to win."

At halftime between the two conventions, the two teams are weary, bruised and locked in a tie. Both are looking for breakout moments, but neither has found one yet. Romney's first half performance has been solid, but not brilliant. Can Obama, who once compared himself to basketball's LeBron James, create some momentum in the second half? This week in Charlotte will tell.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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