ST. PAUL, Minnesota — A week ago, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was barely a blip on the national political map. But with one biting address to the Republican National Convention Wednesday night, Palin rose above the din surrounding her low profile and emerged as one of the new stars of the Republican Party.
On Tuesday night, President Bush praised presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain as a maverick unafraid to go his own way and who makes decisions that don't toe any party line. And on the day three of the convention, the most important out-of-the-box choice the Arizona senator has made in his campaign so far — the selection of his little-known running mate — was in the spotlight.
Given the intense scrutiny the self-described former "hockey mom" has fallen under since her surprise addition to the ticket last Friday, Palin's speech at the Xcel Center felt more like a coronation than a public introduction.
"I'm not a member of the permanent political establishment," said Palin, who appeared a bit humbled and nervous after she was greeted with a two-minute standing ovation, but quickly settled into a confident, often sarcastic rhythm as she repeatedly took aim at Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. "And I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But 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." The line was a summation of two of the three major talking points that have emerged from the convention this week: that the digs against Palin are part of a smear campaign from the liberal media and that she is a reformer in the vein of McCain.
Rather than focusing on her gender or the controversy surrounding her selection, Palin spent nearly 40 minutes painting a picture of herself as an average American who, like McCain, has bucked the status quo.
"I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town," Palin said, reiterating her status as a hockey mom in the PTA. "When I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles, because I knew those voters and knew their families, too. Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."
The latter criticism, a dig at Obama's years as a community organizer in Chicago, was echoed by the other speakers on a night when Republicans really began to take the offensive against Democrats while trying to solidify the image of their own unconventional ticket that will promote change in Washington.
Palin took many swings at Obama, saying he talks "one way in Scranton and another in San Francisco." She claimed he had never authored any substantive legislation and never used the word "victory" except to refer to his campaign. She also accused him of wanting to grow government and raise taxes, and of being afraid that when Al Qaeda threatens to attack America, "someone won't read them their rights."
With a slight tilt of her head and a knowing, folksy grin, Palin delivered her applause lines flawlessly, drawing lusty shouts of "I love you, Sarah!" and "USA!" At one point, one supporter in the rafters shouted of Obama, "He's never done anything, never run anything, he's useless!"
After nearly a year of claims from Republicans that Senator Obama was not qualified enough to lead the country, McCain backers were quick to jump to Palin's defense when questioned about her lack of national political credentials. Citing her six years of stewardship as mayor of the small Alaskan town of Wasilla and her nearly two years as governor, the McCain campaign's spokespeople have been touting Palin as having more executive experience than both Obama and his VP choice, Senator Joe Biden, combined.
Even before Palin took the stage Wednesday night, one-time Republican presidential candidate and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani defended Palin on CBS' "The Early Show," saying, "I would say Barack Obama has never governed a city, never governed a state, never governed an agency, never run a military unit, never run anything. ... Sarah Palin's been a mayor, she's been a governor. She has a record of reform. She has a record of leadership. She's run a budget. So why all these questions for her? Has anybody ever asked Barack Obama, 'Can you bring up your two kids and be president of the United States?' They're asking, 'Can she be vice president and be a mother?' "
During his speech Wednesday, Giuliani mocked Obama as a "celebrity senator," calling him the "least experienced candidate for the presidency of the United States in the last 100 years." He also drew huge applause when he claimed to agree with Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton about Obama not being fit to answer a phone call at 3 a.m. After ticking off a list of what he said were Obama's flip-flops on issues such as Israeli security and campaign financing, Giuliani — backed by a sunset image of the New York skyline — joked, "If I were Joe Biden, I'd want to get that VP thing in writing."
Palin's speech attempted to appeal to working-class voters, frequently referring to her motherhood and rise to the governorship and stressing her ethics reform. She touted such just-folks gestures as selling the governor's luxury jet on eBay, driving herself to work and getting rid of the office's personal chef. Pointing to McCain's war service during Vietnam, Palin said near the end of her address that "There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you!"
Palin arrived in Minneapolis on Sunday and was reportedly huddled in a hotel room for much of the week working on her speech, with input from the McCain campaign's top strategists, who also briefed her on the senator's policy positions. In addition to telling her story and taking shots at the Obama campaign's stances, Palin promoted her vision for energy independence in the United States.
"Our opponents say, again and again, that drilling will not solve all of America's energy problems — as if we all didn't know that already," she said, as the members of her delegation again sported their orange safety vests and helmets that read "Drill Here." The appeal to search for more oil in the United States also drew a humorous chant of "Drill, baby, drill" during Giuliani's comments.
"Here's how I look at the choice Americans face in this election," Palin said. "In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change."
One of the issues the media has seized on this week is the fact that Palin has hardly ever left the United States. She traveled to Germany, Iraq and Kuwait last summer, to Canada one other time, and took a personal trip to Mexico. Though reporters — from national and international newspapers and networks to the tabloid press — have been swarming on every aspect of the Palin story, the governor has been almost entirely out of view since accepting McCain's offer to join the ticket. To date, she has done just one interview — with People magazine on the afternoon her selection was announced — but has not spoken to any reporters in nearly a week.
Given the frenzy set off by the announcement that her 17-year-old unwed daughter is five months pregnant, the decision to hold a photo opportunity Wednesday morning on the tarmac of the Minneapolis International Airport with the entire McCain and Palin families — including 18-year-old father-to-be Levi Johnston — appeared to counter the message from the campaign that the Palins' personal lives were not a relevant topic in the campaign. Though Palin did not mention the pregnancy, Johnston was with the family onstage at the end of the speech and was greeted by McCain, who came out for a surprise appearance.
Smiling and waving, McCain whipped the crowd into a frenzy after Wednesday's speeches by asking, "Don't you think we made the right choice for the next vice president?"
During his address, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said that the reporting of the past few days has been "tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert," reiterating that McCain doesn't support gay marriage, abortion or raising taxes. Another one-time Republican presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, used the phrase "liberal" more than two dozen times to set Republicans apart from their rivals, exhorting the crowd, "We need change all right — change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington! We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington — throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain."
Don't miss out on the action: MTV News and our Street Team '08 will be on the ground at the Republican National Convention to sort through all the speeches, streamers and ceremony and find the information you need to choose our next president. Head to Choose or Lose for nonstop coverage of the 2008 presidential election.