THE PRELIMINARIES “Tonight is the night. All over America people are going to be sitting in front of their TV sets, men as well as women. They will be making up their minds about her. It’s all tonight. Tomorrow night doesn’t matter.” This was a Texas delegate’s assessment of the importance of Palin’s speech, about an hour before she made her appearance. It’s true. There was little sense of anticipation about McCain’s speech tonight, but the atmosphere on the convention floor last night was tingly as the moment approached for Sarah Palin’s debut. The floor has been crowded every night, but last night it was packed. In the fifteen feet or so between the delegate seating on the floor and the regular seats in the arena, there was no space in which to maneuver. You just had to inch your way forward. McCain operatives in their red hats gave up any pretense at crowd control. No one has been allowed to stand in the aisles: Forget it. When I finally found a gap behind the Texas delegation, I couldn’t see Palin make her appearance onstage because the people standing in front of me were holding their cell phones in the air to photograph her. The experience dredged up some ancient memory of a rock concert: bodies shoving and pressing and the musty smell of sweat in the air. Michael Williams, the railroad commissioner, was one of the early speakers. The Texans exploded in cheers when he was introduced, waving their Stetsons, even the alternates sitting in the permanent seats. He has a deep baritone voice that was hard to hear above the din of voices. He was followed by Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, who ran an impressive but ultimately losing race for the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by Paul Sarbanes. Steele revved up the crowd by playing off McCain’s slogan of “country first”: “Do you want to put your country first?” YESSSSS! Then let’s reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil. Let me make this very clear: ‘Drill baby drill!'” And the crowd took up the chant. That was when I realized that the rock concert metaphor was all wrong. This was a high school pep rally. Mitt Romney was next. I think he was on the program to make any doubters about John McCain feel grateful that at least they hadn’t nominated Mitt. That man cannot move a crowd. He had a rather complicated Horace Greely message that the media wants America to look to the eastern liberal elite, but it was time to look to the west, to Arizona and Alaska. “Is the Supreme Court that awards constitutional rights to Guantanamo terrorsts liberal or conservative?” And the crowd shouted back, “Liberal.” This is a Court that has gotten much more conservative during the Bush presidency with the addition of justices Roberts and Alito, a Court that just upheld gun owners rights. It’s nuts to call it liberal. As the speech went on, the enthusiasm of the crowd for the gimmick diminished. Huckabee was next. He began with an attack on the bad ol’ media. “I want to thank the elite media for doing something I didn’t think could be done–unify the Republican party for John McCain and Sarah Palin.” Huck, as he calls himself (but not tonight), really knows how to connect with an audience. He spoke of seeing firsthand the “evil of racism” when he grew up and said, “I have great respect for Senator Obama to become the nominee of his party not because of his race but because of indifference to it.” The applause that followed was pretty widespread. He did make a non sequitur comment that Obama had made a trip to Europe and brought back European ideas. Huh? He ended by saying, “I’m not a Republican because I grew up rich. I’m a Republican because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life waiting for the government to rescue me.” Rudy Giuliani was next. Can we move on now? Well, no. He was the low point of the night. He described Obama as “a gifted man with an Ivy League education who worked as a [dramatic pause, snide voice] community organizer.” This drew titters. Come on now. Obama didn’t go door to door getting people to sign petitions. He was a lawyer. He was president of the Harvard Law Review. I’m not going to waste more time on Rudy. I hope we’ve heard the last of him. THE PALIN SPEECH She is a force to be reckoned with. Sarah Palin has inate political talent. She has the ability to inject her emotions and her sincerity into her words in a way that is transparent–and I mean that in a good way. (Laura Bush can do it too. It’s effortless and natural.) Palin is on the ticket to connect with women, and she’s going to connect with a lot of them. She played the mommy card a lot, never better than early in the speech. First she referred to “my strong and beautiful daughters,” and then she said: And in April, my husband Todd and I welcomed our littlest one into the world, a perfectly beautiful baby boy named Trig. From the inside, no family ever seems typical. That’s how it is with us. Our family has the same ups and downs as any other … the same challenges and the same joys. Sometimes even the greatest joys bring challenge. And children with special needs inspire a special love. The lines are good; the delivery was better. These were heartfelt words. Some other highlights: * “This is America, and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity.” (This line was greeted by shrieks, as if some Hillary supporters had sneaked into the hall.) * [On small town people like Harry Truman]: “They love their country in good times and bad and they’re always proud of America.” This was a shot at Michelle Obama who said that she was proud of America for the first time in her adult life. This began a part of the speech where she zinged the opposition. * “I was a mayor, and since my opponents in this election seem to look down on that, let me explain what this job involves. I guess it’s sort of like a community organizer, except it involves actual responsibilities.” * “You know what they say about the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.” * “I was a mayor, and my opponents in this election seem to look down on that. Let me explain what this job involves. I guess it’s sort of like a community organizer … except it involves actual responsibilities.” Her timing in delivering this line was flawless. She talked a lot about her reform credentials. It was very folksy. “I got rid of the [former governor’s] luxury jet. I put it on eBay. I love to drive myself to work. I thought we could muddle through without the governor’s personal chef. I said thanks but no thanks for the bridge to nowhere.” (The elite media aren’t buying this one.) She talked a lot about McCain’s attributes, as a vice-presidential candidate is expected to do. Her best line here was: “Here’s how I look at the choices. Some candidates use change to promote their careers. And then there are those who use their careers to promote change.” She also employed a clever double entendre: “There is only one man who has ever really fought for you.” Otherwise, she had little to say about issues. She did address energy, which the Democrats are doing everything in their power to ensure is a winning issue for Republicans in the campaign with their opposition to offshore drilling. (“We need to produce our oil and gas, and take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska — we’ve got plenty of both. ” I guess “plenty” is a relative term. The Department of Energy reports that the North Slope of Alaska provides 17% of America’s domestic production today, compared to 25% twenty years ago. Production is definitely in decline. Natural gas is a brighter picture; Palin talked about a pipeline that is expected to be operational in 2016. One thing Palin did not mention was her views on social issues, some of which are way out there, like her support of creationism. In fact, the whole evening seemed designed to avoid any discussion of wedge issues that were so central to Bush’s presidential races. Now the question is, did Palin do what she needed to do? I think she needed to do two things. The first was to establish that she was a gifted politician who was worthy of being a national figure. If you think in terms of the high jump competition in the Olympics, she cleared that bar. But that was just the initial height. The bar is raised as the competition gets tougher, and the level that she must ultimately clear is whether she is qualified to be president of the United States. I don’t think that she made it over that bar last night, and I don’t think she even tried.
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