THE polarisation of political opinion worries all sensible Americans. The right believe Barack Obama is set on turning the US into a secular, wimpish, welfare-dependent, debt-laden, abortion-loving social democracy, where freedom of speech is suppressed by thought police and only gangsters have guns.
A neat example of the vitriol from the left came last week as Tropical Storm Isaac threatened to disrupt the Republican National Convention. Actress Ellen Barkin, ex-wife of our own Gabriel Byrne, retweeted without comment this message from a follower: "C'mon #Isaac! Wash every pro-life, anti-education, anti-woman, xenophobic, gay-bashing, racist SOB right into the ocean!"
Against that background, with attack ads portraying Mitt Romney as filthy rich, tax-dodging and cruel, and with the polls showing the Democrats way ahead with women, African-Americans and Hispanics, the Grand Old Party made the sensible decision to be positive rather than negative.
Speakers from diverse backgrounds were primed to stress their humble origins, showcase the GOP as a woman-friendly happy home for all proud Americans, and try to reveal the compassionate, decent man who does, genuinely seem to lurk behind Romney's stiff, bland, technocratic exterior. They would criticise Obama only for his performance, and stress Romney's record as a successful businessman who, as a reformist, budget-balancing governor of Massachusetts, worked well with Democrats.
Ann Romney (granddaughter of a Welsh miner) managed brilliantly to humanise her husband without adding too much saccharine. "I read somewhere that Mitt and I have a 'storybook marriage'. Well, in the storybooks I read, there were never long, long, rainy, winter afternoons in a house with five boys screaming at once. And those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called MS or breast cancer."
Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, 40, extolled the business-friendly culture that had allowed her Indian immigrant parents to create from nothing a multi-million-dollar company: Romney "fixes things. He's results driven".
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, 49, of poor Irish and Scots paternal, and Sicilian maternal heritage, was taught by Mom that "when you have to choose between being loved and being respected . . . always pick being respected". Romney would tell such hard truths as that existing federal spending was unaffordable.
Governor Susana Martinez, 53, of New Mexico, the first female Hispanic governor, brought the house down with the story of how in 1995 she and her husband, confirmed Democrats, had lunch with a Republican couple and discussed issues like tax and state intervention. Then they got in their car, "and I looked over at Chuck and said, 'I'll be damned, we're Republicans'."
African-American Condoleezza Rice, 57, now back in academia, gave a masterly assessment of international and domestic problems in need of firm but compassionate leadership and added her personal note. "A little girl grows up in . . . the most segregated big city in America. Her parents . . . make her believe that even though she can't have a hamburger at the Woolworth's lunch counter she can be President of the United States and she becomes the Secretary of State."
Convention darling, Senator Marco Rubio, 41, of Florida, whose parents were Cuban immigrants, explained: "Our problem with President Obama isn't that he's a bad person. By all accounts, he too is a good husband, and a good father. Our problem is he's a bad president."
Romney, 65, and Paul Ryan, 42, sought to overcome the handicap of being prosperous white men. Ryan spoke of being only 16 when his father died. Romney recalled that his father's American family were refugees from the Mexican revolution. The charismatic Ryan made a humdinger of a speech assailing the administration for borrowing and wasting trillions, scattered some of his stardust over Romney and stressed that although of different religions (RC and Mormon), they shared a moral creed. "We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope."
Romney made an adequate speech, which is as good as he gets, but he had some memorable lines. Speaking of the optimism generated by the 2008 election, he asked: 'If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him."
What this successful convention did best was to stress what unites rather than divides Americans. This week, with the candidates neck-and-neck, the Democrats take to the floor in North Carolina. They'll be seeking to destroy the opposition without appearing negative. It's a challenge that will stretch even Obama's formidable talents.