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Donna Brazile: Seeking a bounce

The 2012 Republican National Convention has adjourned for the season. What did we learn? Did Ann Romney’s speech convince undecided voters or help close the gender gap? Was Chris Christie inspiring as a keynoter? Did Rick Santorum persuade reluctant religious or social conservatives to embrace Mitt Romney? Can Paul Ryan recruit a new generation of young Americans to take up the conservative cause? What about Jeb Bush?

Every campaign has its dog days, its nadir and the low point when things don’t look good at all, and even the faithful begin to despair if they will win. So far, neither President Barack Obama nor former Gov. Mitt Romney has reached a nadir.

Both have been stuck in an almost dead heat contest, where the error in polling is enough to offset any thrill one candidate can take from being a point or two ahead of his opponent.

In examining 15 polls taken recently, The New York Times found that “pretty much every poll is within the margin of error of the others.” Both candidates have been seeking a breakthrough to move undecided voters to their corner — so far without success.

Political conventions are the opportunity to make a breakthrough to voters. Although modern conventions are scripted, tightly run TV reality shows, they do offer a party the chance to redefine its candidate, to set before the public its vision for the country, to clearly define its core principles and its platform.

So where do we stand? Let’s start with the Republicans who gathered in Tampa, Fla. — a pivotal battleground state with 29 electoral votes.

After delaying the start of the convention by a day while Tropical Storm Isaac determined its destructive path along the Gulf Coast, Romney and his advisers decided to ignore conventional wisdom in seeking the traditional “bounce” in the polls that a convention usually provides. Rather than use the four days (albeit abbreviated) to re-introduce Romney to voters, his strategists decided to continue their singular focus and attacks on President Obama. The tip-off that this strategy was in the making came when a Romney pollster, Neil Newhouse, told the press this week “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

We’ll learn soon enough if this strategy helped lift up Romney or hurt Obama.

The history of convention bounces is not encouraging for those who get them. Al Gore, whose campaign I managed in 2000, came out of the convention with a huge bounce. Some voters simply didn’t know much about Gore, though he was the sitting vice president as well as a former member of Congress. We spent an entire week reintroducing him to the American people. The results were great. The race became competitive again, and this lasted until the end ... or until the recount.

Bill Clinton got a 30-point boost out of his 1992 convention, though his increase was muddied by a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, whose withdrawal enabled the Democrats to get a leg up in the contest. In 1996, the reverse happened. The Republican nominee, Bob Dole, got a big post-convention bounce, but it lasted only about as long as a lightning bug’s blink.

In 2008, John McCain received a life-infusing bounce from Sarah Palin, who electrified the Republican convention in what amounted to defibrillating a moribund body. Her speech was a big hit both inside the convention hall, as well as with some key segments of the electorate energized by her down-home, folksy style. That bounce faded as the country got to know her better and the economy soured.

Romney campaign officials carefully downplayed expectations of a big bounce from this convention. Senior adviser Stuart Stevens told reporters, “I just think all bets are off about any kind of past performance being a predictor of the future.” I wonder if Stevens really believes that.

The newly minted Republican ticket badly needs a bounce. For starters, it would give undecided voters a chance to take a second look to see if this is the team to present a positive, believable plan to improve the economy. This election is, after all, about the economy.

Ryan’s nominating speech was well received in the convention hall. In addition to giving voters a litany of reasons to vote against President Obama, delegates seem pleased with his rendition of the campaign thus far. As one senior Republican strategist said about the selection of Ryan:

 “He is for economic conservatives what Sarah Palin was for social conservatives. He brings genuine passion. He brings a fresh face and new approach to tackling some of the most pressing challenges we face as Americans.”

It’s too soon to know if Romney’s stirring words will lift his campaign numbers in the crucial battleground states. But one thing is for sure: Millions of voters watched the proceedings. They listened. They heard the speeches. One way or another, Romney might get an artificial bounce — until voters hear from Obama and Biden.

DONNA BRAZILE is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.