Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin addresses the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday.
ST. PAUL, MINN. It took until the third night for this Republican National Convention to start to act like one, but liftoff was finally achieved thanks to Sarah Palin, the woman who has made this convention, this week and perhaps this campaign a referendum on herself.
The governor of Alaska, 20 months out of Wasilla and bearing down on the White House, infused what had been a lackluster confab with her personal mix of offense, defense and celebration of small-town America.
In a line that summed up her down-home appeal and her role as designated hitter, Palin asked the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom such as herself. Her answer: "Lipstick."
Palin delivered the pro forma buildup for her new boss with an attitude of admiration and even reverence: "There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you in places where winning means survival and defeat means death, and that man is John McCain." She slashed rival Barack Obama for writing two memoirs and no major legislation.
At no point did she deal with the controversies of her brief time in Juneau or her two terms as mayor in Wasilla. But she cast her own struggles against media inquiries as the plight of a public servant who wants to do good: "Here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country."
It was among her most successful applause lines.
Palin came to the stage without an introductory speech, and none was needed. Hers was the most anticipated speech of the convention, and her appearance instantly electrified the crowd. She stood for several minutes simply absorbing the adulation in her hip glasses and country hairstyle bestowing her beaming smile on the crowd. Far from fearful under the pressure, she seemed to have been living for nothing so much as this moment.
Through most of her speech, she kept a level tone and alternated her steady gaze between the crowd and the camera-teleprompter. The calm demeanor helped offset the high pitch of her voice, and the low-key overall style made her spikier anti-Obama lines more effective. Could any male speaker have slipped the knife in so often without seeming malicious? Could any have been as derisive about the work of community organizing not once but repeatedly without seeming contemptuous of communities in need?
One measure of Palin's effectiveness was the contrast with the preceding performance of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Granted nearly half of the final prime-time hour the 60 minutes when all the broadcast networks join in the coverage Giuliani seemed intent on delivering a barnburner. In the end, he pretty much put the torch to the whole farm.
He often chuckled in advance of his own punch lines and repeated some of his lines, as if to admire them first before actually sharing them with the audience. It was hard to believe that at one point less than a year ago, this man loomed as the likeliest Republican nominee in 2008.
Giuliani was not alone in the Greek chorus supporting the young governor. He was joined by two other former candidates who had divided the conservative vote in the early primaries, making it possible for John McCain to win the nomination (with help from Fred Thompson, who had spoken the previous night).
The best offering among these came from the last GOP rival to succumb, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The former Baptist minister's warm baritone caressed the audience, and his words conveyed the sense that his feelings for the man who beat him were genuine.
On the other hand, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said the right things, but in rapid-fire fashion that suggested he was planning to jet home before the evening program came to an end. Once again, he seemed not quite able to believe he was not getting the nomination himself.
Some of these also-rans had also been mentioned as potential running mates, and Romney was apparently on the final short list. He was also the first choice in a survey of GOP convention delegates by The New York Times. But he was not the choice of McCain, who reportedly preferred two offbeat prospects: former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent and former Democrat.
The conflict over these prospects apparently ended in an impasse. Competing factions within McCain's party and campaign went looking for a compromise and came up with two governors: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Palin. The better-known and more cautious choice would have been Pawlenty, the host for the convention and a boon in a state that might be close in November.
But McCain had been struck with Palin's personality, her feisty record as governor and her falling out with the old guard of Alaska's GOP. It made a more mediagenic picture than Pawlenty's more conventional life and politics. So McCain called her and her family to Arizona last week. There she submitted to a three-hour interrogation by an attorney and a 70-item questionnaire. Reportedly, she also volunteered the information regarding her pregnant 17-year-old daughter.
So now the McCain campaign has become the McCain-Palin campaign, and the hyphenated version matters more than usual. Earlier this year, McCain was a second or third choice among Republican stalwarts (in crucial early primaries, he won less than a plurality of their vote but prevailed because other candidates split the rest). Now he has more emotional connection to them and will use that to lay claim to their allegiance.
If things work as well on the trail this fall as they did on this night in St. Paul, the risks of the Palin pick will pay off.