High hopes for the Democratic National Convention

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If the fate of the nation is truly this year’s political football, what will America be watching on television Wednesday night: Bill Clinton in Charlotte, N.C., or Eli Manning in East Rutherford, N.J.?

The North Carolina banking center will host the Democratic National Convention this year, from Sept. 4 through 6, with the former president slated to be the Sept. 5 prime-time speaker. But as the relevance of political conventions has waned, some wonder if another stemwinder from the famously loquacious Arkansan can top the Giants’ quarterback and the NFL season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

PresidentBarack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will accept their party’s nominations the following evening in prime time. But NBC is skipping the convention Wednesday in favor of gridiron coverage.

“I don’t think there’s much there,” Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, who has attended every convention since 1976, said of the convention as a news event.

“You watch Clinton. You watch Obama. You watch Biden for a train wreck, although that will be scripted. I assume they’ll insist that he sticks to the TelePrompTer. But (keynote speaker and San Antonio Mayor) Julian Castro? Get real.”

The telegenic Castro and first lady Michelle Obama will speak on Tuesday’s opening night.

Other luminaries speaking during the shortened schedule include Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, former President Jimmy Carter by video, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The national Democratic Party is holding a raffle for tickets to a party at which Tony Bennett will perform. Parties galore are scheduled, including one being called “Spirits of Charlotte,” fueled by the Distilled Spirits Council, the National Association of Homebuilders, the National Restaurant Association and others.

In the past, vice presidential candidates were selected during the conventions, lending some suspense to the proceedings. The Democrats’ Chicago Convention in 1968, with its Vietnam War protest and infamous “police riot,” electrified a national audience. Now, anticipating a Biden malapropism, a repeat of violent street clashes with protesters or another late summer tropical storm are the few variables that could keep events from being predictable.

Good-government groups such as Public Citizen and the Sunlight Foundation also will monitor parties hosted by lobbyists to see that new rules governing members of Congress are adhered to, or not. They may make headlines the party faithful might wish to avoid.

But now that all important decisions have been made before the first delegate is seated, the conventions have become opportunities to schmooze, seek business or live it up. Conventions that cost about $2 million each in 1976, almost exclusively paid for with public funds, have ballooned in 2012 to gabfests costing an estimated $55 million last week in Tampa and $37 million for the Democrats in Charlotte.

Of that, the public will kick in $18.3 million each to the host parties.

Democratic delegate Ferial Masry, a high school teacher from Newbury Park, Calif., said the political conventions underscore an important lesson that she often emphasizes to her students: The best way to learn about politics is to get actively involved.

“It’s a very interesting experience,” said Masry, who is attending her second convention. “You see all of the people who are really committed to the political process, and you get to meet so many people from parts of the country with different persuasions and different ethnic groups. That’s one of the things I really like about the Democratic Party — a lot of women, a lot of minorities. Everybody is there. So it really is a great reflection of the American experience.”

English teacher Mary Geren, who jokes that she is one a handful of Democrats in Anderson County, S.C., says being a delegate is “a dream come true.” Growing up a “nerd” watching the conventions on television, she always yearned to participate, she said.

This year, she’ll not only vote from the convention floor but, as the Student Democrats adviser at Tri-County Technical College, she helped organize a charter-bus full of students to see Obama’s acceptance speech in the 73,778-seat Bank of America Stadium on Thursday.

Kelly Jacobs of politically beet-red Hernando, Miss., is driving her bronze Prius — decked out with re-elect Obama signs and Christmas lights — to the convention, her third after former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s run got her involved in 2004.

While she’s excited to be among other Obama-Biden supporters, she’s disappointed at the decision not to let Dean or Obama’s chief rival in 2008, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, make podium speeches. She also said she had a pile of invitations five inches high by this time four and eight years ago, but now invitations come by email and she wonders if elderly delegates who don’t use computers will miss out.

Another difference from previous conventions is the lack of real competition this year, said Boyd Richie, a Graham, Texas, attorney who stepped down this summer as chairman of the Texas Democratic Party after serving six years.

“That’s a big difference between ’08 and ’12: We don’t have that close, tight race that the nominee was not yet decided until just before the conventions kicked off, and that makes a big difference, and I think that’s why you perceive that there’s not as much excitement or enthusiasm. I think the enthusiasm is still there. It’s just not manifest because we don’t have that kind of a contest this go ’round,” Richie said.

First-time delegate Turquoise Pipes of Abilene, Texas, decided to get involved in local politics after seeing Obama’s inauguration. “It was such an awesome feeling that I knew the next time he was going to be running, I wanted to be a part of like the grass roots efforts, and that kind of was my start with wanting to be a delegate,” Pipes said.

The hometown of evangelist Billy Graham and basketball star Michael Jordan, Charlotte’s nicknames include “the Queen City” and “the Hornet’s Nest” for its resistance to the British in the Revolutionary War.

This week, it’s the playing field for the kickoff of the general election against the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. By the end of the week, political observers will be trying to assess what good either of the multimillion-dollar infomercials did for the candidates.

“The thing to look for 72 hours after the convention is what does the bounce look like?” said Mississippi State University political scientist W. Martin Wiseman. “Is it 5 or 6 percent? If it’s 1 or 2, there’s a problem.”

Via Bartholomew Sullivan of Scripps News Service.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.