Palin prepares for speech of her life

Now people get a chance to screen Sarah Palin for themselves.

The Alaska governor is scheduled to take the stage at the Republican National Convention tonight in her first extended chance to tell a national audience who she is and why she should be vice president.

It will be a critical moment for a newcomer to national politics who is unknown to most of the country. She faces a barrage of revelations about her and questions about how carefully Republican presidential candidate John McCain screened her before he stunned the political world last week by naming her as his running mate.

Leading up to her speech, Republicans asserted Tuesday that they wholeheartedly support Palin, that questions about her 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy are an invasion of privacy and that criticism of her experience as a small-town mayor is sexist.

“She was a hockey mom, she became a mayor, she understands the values of America,” said Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America. “Every day, American women especially face challenges in their private lives and surely she is no different.”

Beth Kigel, a convention alternate from Lake Worth, Fla., said, “It's wonderful how her family is embracing the daughter. As Republicans, that's what we ask families to do.”

James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, called Palin a blessing. “A lot of people were praying, and I believe Sarah Palin is God's answer,” he told conservative leaders at a forum this week.

Interviews across the country by The Associated Press found many who said Tuesday that Bristol Palin's pregnancy should be a private matter. Yet some of these same people wondered whether Sarah Palin could be an effective vice president and deal with the obligations of parenting both her own and her children's children.

A supporter of Democrat Barack Obama said she felt the information was fair game. “It gives you insight about her,” said Joanell Williams, a 37-year-old high school teacher from Hahnville, La.

“What I keep asking myself is, if you can't take care of your own household, how can you take care of the nation?” said Williams. “If she is so strong on conservative values why wasn't she able to get that through at home? My mother raised seven daughters. … None of us came home pregnant.”

Independent pollster Scott Rasmussen found that about half of all voters have a favorable opinion of Palin and that the country is about evenly divided on whether she's a good choice. Republicans like her a lot, Democrats dislike her a lot and independents are divided, Rasmussen said.

“But Democrats and unaffiliated voters are clearly more skeptical of Palin's candidacy now than they were” in an earlier poll, he said.

Most people want to know more.

In one sign of the curiosity about the 44-year-old Palin, Rasmussen said he found voters signaling that they rank her second after Obama among the top candidates they'd like to meet personally. Republicans would rather meet her than McCain, and Democrats would rather meet her than Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

What will they be looking for when she speaks?

“Basically, she has to be herself,” said pollster John Zogby. “If there's anything she brings to the ticket, it's authenticity.”

She can talk about her reputation as a reformer and a mother of five while also answering criticism that she's too inexperienced, questions about whether she tried to use her office to have a former brother-in-law fired from a state job, or the revelation about her teenage daughter.

Convention keynoter Rudy Giuliani on Tuesday upbraided a reporter who asked whether Palin's daughter's pregnancy was distracting from the convention.

“You should be ashamed of yourself asking that question,” the former New York mayor said as he left a breakfast with the South Carolina and New Hampshire delegations.

“This is a personal issue that the family is handling in the most appropriate way that it can be handled … Other American families have had to handle this. … It doesn't have the slightest, the slightest, relationship to a presidential campaign.”

All of it was meant to set the stage for a speech that in normal times would be a running mate's one moment in the spotlight until the fall debate – and one now certain to draw more attention than usual.

“It's a unique opportunity to have a conversation with the American public.” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said Tuesday. “It's also a chance to see beyond the media fog of the last 48 hours. …

“Other than the debates, when she doesn't have a clear shot, there's not anything more compelling.”

The Associated Press, the Dallas Morning News and Cox Newspapers contributed.
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