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US Conventions Showcase Presidential Candidates

American voters, busy with summer vacations and distracted by the Olympic Games will soon have an opportunity to focus their attention on the U.S. presidential race. Bill Eagle reports from Washington, the Democratic and Republican parties are soon to begin their nationally-televised conventions which will showcase their candidates and and begin the final phase of the presidential campaign that ends with the election on November fourth.

At the conventions, delegates nominate and confirm their parties' candidates for president and vice-president.

They are also a show of unity among the supporters of the presidential hopefuls. For example, Democratic Party leaders have agreed to a roll call that would allow delegates pledged to vote for Senator Hillary Clinton to announce their preference for her. Senator Barack Obama has the most delegates and is the party's presumptive presidential candidate. However, the tally is seen as a way to acknowledge Senator Clinton's delegates and resolve any tensions between the two former competitors, after a sometimes bitter primary election campaign.

Millions watch the televised events both within the United States and around the world.

J. Peter Pham is the director of international and public affairs at James Madison University near Washington, DC. He’s also a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy.

Pham says the conventions give foreign audiences a chance to see the American model of democracy, where parties are built around grassroots debates over principles and issues. He says in contrast, in many developing countries parties are built around a strong personality or wealthy elites.

"The convention is unique," he says,"in that the party structures are unique: they [allow for] the open involvement of most people. In the US you can vote in (party primaries) without giving a dime to the party. [But] In other countries, membership in a party means paying dues. So a limited set of people are involved."

Selling Success

Party organizers want to persuade voters to support their candidates.

Robert Loevy is a professor of political science at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

He says part of a successful convention is a well-received acceptance speech by the nominee.

He says in the 2002 Republican convention, then-candidate George W. Bush said he wanted inclusion and demonstrated his point by putting lots of minorities in front of the camera: "There was a feeling the convention was creating a new image for the Republican Party among many viewers."

Loevy says the candidate also gained by delivering a flawless speech. The press had said Mr. Bush, then the governor of Texas, was not a polished public speaker.

On the other hand, Loevy says even a candidate known to be an eloquent speaker may not necessarily score with viewers. "[Barak] Obama," he says,"will be in a very difficult position, in my view. He has a reputation as...a perfect speaker. The expectations for his speech will be so high that if it is mediocre it will be a [disappointment] for the party."

The candidate’s speech can also backfire. In 1988, the first president Bush, George H.W. Bush, introduced the catch phrase, “Read My Lips. No New Taxes.” But he did end up raising them, and during his re-election campaign four years later, opponents were quick to accuse him of breaking his promise.

Peace in the Streets, Unity in the Hall

Loevy says a successful convention is a peaceful one.

Many pundits say the tumultuous Democratic Party convention in 1968 likely helped Republican candidate Richard Nixon beat competitor Hubert Humphrey in a close poll. Millions of television viewers watched violent clashes between the Chicago police and convention protesters against the war in Vietnam.

Authorities expect anti-war protests at both party conventions this year. Loevy says a group called Recreate 68 intends to demonstrate at the Democratic gathering in Denver.

"The important thing," he says,"is how the city handles it. It has to be in such a way that police do not hit protesters with nightsticks. [Some] demonstrators try to provoke [the police]. Cities and parties have gotten pretty good at handling this in recent years, but the potential is always there [for violence]."

Convention organizers are working with protest groups and with authorities to ensure that all demonstrations are peaceful. Party activists realize that television and the internet are powerful tools for shaping voters’ opinions. The only images they want voters to see are those projecting strength and unity.

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