By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 3 -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin electrified the Republican convention Wednesday night, pitching herself as a champion of government reform, mocking Democratic candidate Barack Obama as an elitist and belittling media criticism of her experience.
In a speech that served as her introduction to most of the nation after Sen. John McCain's surprise decision to pick her as his vice presidential running mate, Palin pitched herself as the product of small-town America and laced her address with sarcastic digs at Sen. Obama. She said it is his experience, not hers, that is lacking, and she embraced the role of leading the attack against the Democratic ticket.
"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities," she deadpanned. "I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening."
Palin, who would be the first woman elected to the vice presidency, said she will ignore the "Washington elite" who do not consider her qualified for the post, and she served notice that she will not wilt in the face of critical coverage that followed McCain's announcement.
"Here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators," she told the convention delegates, who wagged their fingers toward the arena's media boxes as she delivered the punch line. "I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion -- I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country."
The 44-year-old wife and mother of five was greeted with thunderous applause after a fiery and rousing introduction by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who called her a woman "who has no fear" and added: "This is a woman who stands up for what's right."
Palin focused on almost every tactical misstep Obama's campaign has made, painting a caricature of the Democrat as an out-of-touch elitist and a lightweight celebrity with no sense of what matters to average Americans.
"We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco," she said. Mocking the speech in which Obama accepted the Democratic nomination before a crowd of more than 84,000 at a Denver football stadium, she asked: "When the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot, what exactly is our opponent's plan? What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet?"
She leaned heavily on her own biography, introducing her husband, Todd, as a commercial fisherman, a union member, a world-champion snowmobile racer and an Eskimo. She described herself as a mom-turned-politician with the "same challenges and the same joys" as other families.
She also offered at least one apparent ad-lib: "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?" she asked. "Lipstick."
Palin pledged that she would join McCain in a crusade for change, promising to "govern with integrity, goodwill, clear convictions, and . . . a servant's heart." And she praised McCain's character, making it clear that Obama has not served his country the way McCain has.
"It's a long way from the fear and pain and squalor of a 6-by-4 cell in Hanoi to the Oval Office," she said of McCain's time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "But if Senator McCain is elected president, that is the journey he will have made."
McCain appeared onstage briefly after her speech, declaring her the "next vice president of the United States" before a screaming crowd. He is scheduled to appear Thursday evening to accept the party's presidential nomination, a victory that has taken almost a decade. Delegates awarded him the nomination in a roll call of states after Palin's speech.
For all of Palin's charm, however, it was three men who had tried to deny McCain that nomination who first delivered the searing attacks on liberalism, the media and Obama that the conservative crowd desperately craved.
Giuliani brought delegates to their feet repeatedly, turning out an energetic, biting assault on Obama's candidacy, mocking the Democrat as an inexperienced, overly ambitious, flip-flopping politician.
The former mayor could barely get through his speech as he described Obama's experience, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Obama worked as a community organizer, he told the crowd, before heading for the Illinois legislature.
"Where nearly 130 times he couldn't make a decision. He couldn't figure out whether to vote yes or no. It was too tough. He voted present," Giuliani intoned with mock surprise. "I didn't know about this vote -- present -- when I was mayor of New York City. For president of the United States, it's not good enough to be present. You have to make a decision."
Mocking Obama's change of position on Jerusalem, Giuliani said: "I hope for his sake, Joe Biden got that VP thing in writing."
Referring to Democratic questions about Palin's qualifications, Giuliani added: "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that Barack Obama feels that her home town isn't cosmopolitan enough. I'm sorry, Barack, that it's not flashy enough. Maybe they cling to religion there."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney -- McCain's chief nemesis throughout the GOP primary campaign -- repeatedly tapped into delegates' palpable anger about what many consider to be unfair coverage of their vice presidential nominee.
"For decades, the Washington sun has been rising in the East," home to "the Eastern elites, to the editorial pages of the Times and The Post," he said. "If America really wants change, it's time to look for the sun in the West, 'cause it's about to rise and shine from Arizona and Alaska."
The crowd erupted in applause, as it did again when Romney vowed to "stop the spread of government dependency to fight it like the poison it is. It's time for the party of big ideas, not the party of Big Brother."
Romney was followed by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who employed his trademark wit to deride Obama's foreign policy judgment and reject Democratic attacks on the GOP as the party of the wealthy.
"I really tire of hearing how the Democrats care about the working guy as if all Republicans grew up with silk stockings and silver spoons," he said, bringing delegates to their feet. "In my little home town of Hope, Arkansas, the three sacred heroes were Jesus, Elvis and FDR, not necessarily in that order."
Using some of the toughest language of the night, Huckabee predicted that Obama would "continue to give madmen the benefit of the doubt. If he's wrong just once, we will pay a heavy price."
McCain "will follow the fanatics to their caves in Pakistan or to the gates of hell," he said. "What Obama wants to do is give them a place setting at the table."
Anticipating the importance of Palin's debut before a national audience, McCain speechwriter Matthew Scully spent days working on the speech, and she rehearsed it repeatedly as McCain aides offered coaching. Before she delivered it, they began an all-out effort to defend her and take the offensive against her critics, mobilizing surrogates to tell her story and accusing journalists of creating a "faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee."
Earlier, Palin greeted McCain as he arrived in Minnesota, and the two posed for photographers on the tarmac with their families, a gathering that included a dozen children -- her five and his seven. Joining them was Levi Johnston, 18, the fiance of Palin's daughter Bristol and the father of the baby she is due to deliver in December, who had flown in from Alaska. McCain hugged Bristol and spoke to her at length, then greeted Johnston before putting his arms around both of them. The McCain family then went to the Minneapolis Convention Center to help pack hurricane relief supplies.
McCain campaign officials pushed back aggressively against media coverage of both Gov. Palin's background and Bristol Palin's pregnancy, declaring in a statement early Wednesday that they would no longer discuss how well or poorly they had vetted Palin's record.
"This nonsense is over. It is time to begin the debate about how to win the two wars this country is engaged in; how to make this country energy-independent; and how to create jobs for American families that are hurting," senior adviser Steve Schmidt wrote. "The American people get to do the vetting now on Election Day -- November 4th."
McCain also released a television ad titled "Alaska's Maverick" on Wednesday, touting Palin an "agent of reform." And a late-afternoon statement by the campaign took an unusual step by decrying the "smearing of the Palin family" and calling allegations in the tabloid National Enquirer that Palin had an affair "a vicious lie."
Staff writers Robert Barnes and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.