Before Speech, Running Mate Gets Some Coaching

Upon arriving in Minneapolis, John McCain is greeted by the Palin family.  The GOP presidential candidate embraces Bristol Palin.  Levi Johnston, Bristol's fiancee, watches on the left.
Upon arriving in Minneapolis, John McCain is greeted by the Palin family. The GOP presidential candidate embraces Bristol Palin. Levi Johnston, Bristol's fiancee, watches on the left. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Juliet Eilperin and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 3, 2008; 2:37 PM

MINNEAPOLIS, Sept. 3 -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the presumptive Republican vice presidential nominee, emerged from the seclusion of preparing her acceptance speech to join her family with John McCain's to greet the Arizona senator when his plane arrived here Wednesday.

There were hugs and kisses all around, but McCain paid special attention to the two young people who have been receiving so much attention -- 17-year-old Bristol Palin, who is five months pregnant, and her boyfriend, Levi Johnston. The two held hands as McCain approached, then the senator hugged Bristol and talked to her at length. Reporters could not hear the conversation. He then greeted Johnston, 18, and put his arms around both of them.

Another new addition to the brood not previously seen was the Palin's son Track, 19, who is in the Army and, according to Palin, will be deployed to Iraq on Sept. 11. McCain greeted him warmly, then called over his sons Jack, 22, who is in his fourth year at the Naval Academy, and Jimmy, 20, a Marine private.

The families made quite a receiving line for McCain. Besides his wife, Cindy, wearing a bright red dress, there were McCain's three children from his first marriage, Doug, Andrew and Sydney; his four children with Cindy, Meghan, Jack, Jim and Bridget; Palin and her husband, Todd; Bristol and Levi; and the other Palin children, Track, Willow, Piper and infant Trig.

Instinct took over when the presumptive presidential nominee got to Trig, who was held by Willow. McCain kissed him on the forehead.

Palin, a relative unknown on the national political scene who was chosen as McCain's running mate last Friday, had been holed up in her suite in the Hilton Minneapolis since Sunday night. A parade of McCain's top advisers have briefed her on the nuances of his policy positions, national politics and, above all, how to introduce herself to the national audience she will address Wednesday night at the Republican convention.

Sitting around a dining room table, the McCain team has talked to her about Iraq, energy and the economy but has focused on what she should say in her speech, struggling almost as hard as she has to prepare for what will be, along with a debate in October, her main opportunity to shape the way she is viewed by voters. Not anticipating that McCain would choose a woman as his running mate, the speech that was prepared in advance was "very masculine," according to campaign manager Rick Davis, and "we had to start from scratch."

By all accounts Palin has thrown herself enthusiastically into preparations for her prime-time debut as well as for her first campaign trip without McCain, expected to be next week. On Tuesday afternoon, she practiced her first run-through of the speech before an audience that included strategists Steve Schmidt, Nicolle Wallace and Mark Salter, who all offered suggestions. Early Wednesday morning, she toured the stage at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, adjusting the microphone and getting a sense of the podium, trailed by several aides.

"She's very engaged, she's very enthusiastic," said Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella, who has attended some of the briefing and speechwriting sessions. "She clearly wants to absorb as much information as possible."

Aides to McCain and Palin were still debating elements of the speech, according to several GOP sources familiar with the process, including whether the governor should make reference to Bristol's pregnancy. In the speech, Palin is likely to emphasize her areas of policy expertise -- particularly energy and political reform -- rather than focusing on her biography or gender. An initial version of the address, which speechwriter Matthew Scully started crafting a week ago for an unnamed male vice presidential pick, included plenty of attacks aimed at Democratic nominee Barack Obama along with ample praise for McCain, aides said. But they said Palin's speech will focus more on substantive matters.

"There's an expectation that she doesn't have a depth of knowledge on issues," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds. "That's absurd."

The stakes for Palin are much higher than they were for her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has run for president twice and has served in the Senate for 35 years. Several GOP strategists said Palin, who has been governor less than two years, needs to establish herself as someone who is credible as a potential president. "She's like any new person or product on the scene -- she's got to prove she can handle the job, that she's got the presence and suppleness of mind to be a heartbeat away from the presidency," said Ben Ginsberg, who was a senior adviser to McCain's GOP primary rival Mitt Romney.

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