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Archive for July 6th, 2008

(NYT) – For all Senator Barack Obama’s success at raising money and generating excitement among voters, he faces a daunting challenge as he prepares to claim the nomination in August: a Democratic convention effort marred by costly setbacks and embarrassing delays.
With the Denver convention less than two months away, problems range from the serious — upwardly spiraling costs on key contracts still being negotiated — to the mundane, like the reluctance of local caterers to participate because of stringent rules on what delegates will be eating, down to the color of the food. At last count, plans to renovate the inside of the Pepsi Center for the Democrats are $6 million over budget, which may force convention planners to scale back on their original design or increase their fund-raising goals.
The convention is being organized by the Democratic National Committee, which is run by Howard Dean, with his chief of staff, the Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, leading the effort. Only in the last month has the Obama campaign been able to take over management of the convention planning with the candidate claiming the nomination, and his aides are increasingly frustrated, as the event nears, at organizers who they believe spent too freely, planned too slowly and underestimated actual costs.
The Obama campaign has dispatched 10 people to Denver to help “get a handle on the budget and make hard decisions” about what has to be done and how to move forward, said Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman.
With Democrats seeking to use the convention to move past the bitterness of their bruising primary fight, the gathering in Denver Aug. 25-28 is likely to draw intense interest as the Obama forces try to show a once-divided party rallying around the nominee. And their convention comes a week before the Minneapolis gathering of the Republicans, whose convention efforts have been much smoother.
Some of the Democratic missteps started soon after planning for the event began. The Democratic National Convention Committee decided not to take cheap office space and instead rented top-quality offices in downtown Denver at $100,000 a month, only to need less than half the space, which it then filled with rental furniture at $50,000 a month. And in a costly misstep, the Denver host committee, early on, told corporate donors that their contributions were not tax-deductible, rather than to encourage donations by saying that the tax-exempt application was pending and expected to be approved.
Overly ambitious environmental goals — to turn the event into a “green” convention — have backfired as only three states’ full delegations have so far agreed to participate in the program. Negotiations over where to locate demonstrators remain unsettled with members of the national news media concerned over proposals to locate the demonstrators — with their loud gatherings — next to the media tent.
And then there is the food: A 28-page contract requested by Denver organizers that caterers provide food in “at least three of the following five colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple and white.” Garnishes could not be counted toward the colors. No fried foods would be allowed. Organic and locally grown foods were mandated, and each plate had to be 50 percent fruits and vegetables. As a result, caterers are shying away.
For the Democratic Party, the danger is that a poorly run convention, or one that misses the mark financially, will reflect badly on the party and raise questions about Democratic management skills. And more worrisome for the Obama campaign is that it will be left with the bill for overruns or fund-raising shortfalls, and that the candidate will have to compete in raising money against a convention effort desperate for cash.
Natalie Wyeth, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Convention Committee in Denver, said the convention “is on track and we are confident that we are where we are supposed to be at this point in the game.”
She added, “We are exactly where we intended to be at.”
Ms. Wyeth also defended the party’s choice of office space, saying a cheaper alternative was rejected because it would have required extensive and costly improvements mandated by the city.
The Democratic convention is already running behind in its fund-raising. At last count, the convention was about $11 million short of the $40.6 million needed to stage the event — even before cost overruns were taken into consideration. This has prompted local newspapers to suggest in editorials that the Obama campaign should step in and begin to raise money for the committee.
Even more, those involved in the convention preparations portray Denver and party organizers as having squandered precious time, pushing critical decision-making into the final hours when it is more difficult to keep a lid on costs. Already, plans to have two dozen parties for the 56 delegations at locations throughout Denver were canceled, and instead there will be a single party at the city’s convention center.
“Major decisions are being settled only at the last minute,” said one convention organizer, who requested anonymity because of the confidentiality of the contracting process. “These contracts should have been out and signed last March or April. We still have no agreement on the budget or the scope of the work for the build-out at the Pepsi Center. There is no reason why it is so late, why important issues have not been addressed and why we are trying to figure these things out at the last minute.”
The Obama campaign is keeping a watchful eye on the process.
“Though there is much very hard work ahead,” said Mr. Burton, the campaign spokesman, “we are committed to having the best Democratic convention we ever had.”
Part of the problem, say those close to the plans, is a clash between the Obama campaign, which is tight-fisted about its money, and the Democratic convention committee, which failed to estimate properly the costs of the convention. As the Obama campaign begins to take over in Denver they are beginning to question why the party’s estimates for construction, entertainment and other components are so at odds with what actual costs are turning out to be.
“We are now going into the final construction phase, and it is turning out to be much higher,” said a person with knowledge of the budget, but who is not tied to either the Obama campaign or the party. “So the Obama camp is not pleased and is raising questions about where all the money had been going. And they look at the posh office space for the Democratic Party staff here, which is really plush, and they say, ‘They spent the money on that?’ ”
This last-minute scramble covers contracts to build the skyboxes, the podium and the news media center. The problems have forced organizers to consider — and reject — some cost-cutting proposals, like housing the media center in trailers or cutting out air-conditioning from the media tent.
Some of the efforts are being ridiculed by many in Denver. City Councilman Charlie Brown, a political independent, has devoted his monthly newsletter to “Food Fight” over the color-coded rules for convention food and is concerned that plans to handle the thousands of demonstrators expected to attend have not been fully thought out.
While Mr. Brown said he expects the city will “cowboy up” and have a successful convention, the lack of resolution about important issues like the demonstrators and food are “the donkey in the room.”
“We are having people say that they will be leaving town,” said Mr. Brown, who fears that the city could be in a no-win situation with the demonstrators — if there is insufficient police presence, the city could be overrun by them; if the police are overly aggressive, they will be criticized as overreacting.
And caterers, expected to feed the 40,000 people coming to town, are throwing up their hands over the food requirements.
“Everything that the Democrats did got off to a late start,” said Peggy Beck, a co-owner of Three Tomatoes Catering. “It was such an ordeal. We’ve jumped through hoops and hoops to bid on their stuff, and we had to have certain color food so the plates would be colorful.” In the end, the parties that she had been bidding on were canceled to save money. “This was some of the silliest stuff ever,” she added.
Nick Agro, head of Whirled Peas Catering, questioned whether the requirement for local organic food could meet cost constraints. “These were fantastic ideas, but I question who is willing to pay for these extra costs,” Mr. Agro said. “My experience is that it is all coming together slowly.”
In Denver, hotel space is also in short supply. James F. Smith, national political editor of The Boston Globe, said the Democratic Party could arrange only 5 of the 21 rooms his newspaper had required. And those are a 35-minute drive away at the Denver International Airport.

All I can say is – ha, ha, ha!

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The latest findings of the Pew Forum’s massive and indispensable U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reveal some intriguing confusion among Americans on cosmic issues. About 13 percent of evangelicals, it turns out, don’t believe in a personal God, leading to a shameful waste of golf time on Sunday mornings. And 9 percent of atheists report that they are skeptical of evolution. Are there atheist creationists?
On the relation of faith to politics, two points stand out in the survey:
First, there is a clear connection between piety — praying often and attending worship services frequently — and political conservatism across nearly every religious tradition. Seventy-three percent of evangelicals who attend services at least once a week believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases; among more loosely affiliated evangelicals, the figure is 45 percent. Jews who pray daily are twice as likely to call themselves political conservatives.
Second, religiously conservative people have more in common with the general public on political issues than some liberals and conservatives assume. Fifty-seven percent of evangelicals agree that “government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.” More than half of evangelicals believe that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. And though 50 percent of evangelicals still identify themselves as Republicans, that number has declined amid the broader trend of political alienation and restlessness.
Barack Obama’s campaign looks at this political diversity and sees opportunity. His advisers report to me that the candidate’s evangelical outreach is deeply in earnest — a long-term personal goal, not a political ploy. Obama is as comfortable with the language of personal religious commitment as was Jimmy Carter — a facility that usually comes with sincerity. His recent meeting with 30 major religious leaders in Chicago was, by most accounts, a constructive success. His staff has conducted more than 200 American Values Forums — faith-based town halls — and plans to hold house parties and dorm meetings on similar themes.
But along with these advantages, Obama has challenges, particularly when it comes to evangelical outreach.
As James Dobson has inartfully pointed out, Obama is not a traditional evangelical when it comes to biblical interpretation and certain moral issues. But this should hardly surprise us, since Obama has never claimed to be. He came to faith in the United Church of Christ, one of America’s defining liberal denominations — the first to ordain women (in 1853) and to endorse same-sex marriage (in 2005). Obama is properly understood as a man of the religious left, in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. According to a recent poll by Calvin College’s Henry Institute, Obama has expanded his appeal among mainline Protestants (who, it is often forgotten, are traditionally Republican). But he also seems determined to call an evangelical bluff: Since you now praise King as a model of religious involvement in politics, you need at least to consider me.
The greatest obstacle to this consideration is abortion. I’ve seen no good evidence that evangelicals are becoming less pro-life (a previous Pew poll indicated that young evangelicals are actually more pro-life than their elders). To blunt this issue, Obama calls attention to his views on adoption, teen pregnancy and the sacredness of sex. He insists he is open to late-term abortion restrictions, if they are accompanied by broad exceptions for the health of the mother. But when the up-or-down political decisions came, Obama would not support a ban on partial-birth abortion or even legal protections for infants who are born alive after the procedure.
An evangelical vote for Obama requires a large mental adjustment: “I like his views on poverty or torture or climate change, even though he cannot bring himself to oppose the most brutal form of abortion.” This may work for some, particularly more loosely affiliated evangelicals. But for most pro-life people, the protection of innocent life is not one issue among many, it is the most basic, foundational commitment of a just society. And John McCain has his own appeal to these voters — remaining pro-life while opposing torture, addressing climate change and championing human rights in places such as Burma and Sudan. So far, McCain’s support among evangelicals is holding up — a recent poll shows McCain with a three to one advantage over Obama.
In today’s environment of discontent and reassessment, a Democratic presidential candidate might achieve a historic political breakthrough with religious voters. Obama has great advantages in this attempt — except on the issue that matters most.

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