Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska could not have asked for a better setting for her solo debut on the national stage: An audience enthralled with her selection as Sen. John McCain's running mate, after three days in seclusion with some of the nation's most skilled political counselors to write, hone and practice her speech.
She drew warm applause as she described her life as a “hockey mom” and introduced her family. She heard cheers as she promised an aggressive energy policy that included more drilling. And she ignited a full-throated round of booing directed at the news media and “Washington elite” that, she suggested, had ganged up on her since her selection.
But her speech at the Republican National Convention, if ecstatically embraced in the hall, may prove to have been the easy part.
From here, Palin moves into a national campaign where she will have to appeal to audiences that are not necessarily primed to adore her. She will have to navigate far-less-controlled campaign settings that will test her political skills and her knowledge of foreign and domestic policy.
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And she will have to persuade the country that she is prepared to be a vice president at a time when the definition of that job has been elevated to the status of governing partner.
“The people who are in the hall – they've already been sold, they are choir,” said John Danforth, the former Republican senator from Missouri. “Now the question for her and for McCain and for everybody who is inside the hall is, how to clarify their message to the American people?”
Her speech Wednesday left no doubt that she would take on the traditional role of the No. 2 on a ticket, attacking the top of the other ticket, which she did repeatedly and with gusto.
The question is whether someone who is so little known and has what even Republicans describe as a scant resume has the authority to make those attacks credible – unlike, say, her counterpart on the Democratic side, Sen. Joe Biden, a veteran of foreign and domestic policy who repeatedly attacked McCain last week.
Clearly, her big task on Wednesday and in the days ahead was to drive home the image the McCain campaign has meticulously sought to attach to this unexpected pick: The corruption-fighting, maverick governor from outside Washington, a socially conservative mother of five who can connect with working-class Americans in a way that Obama has not been able to do.
The problem for Palin is that that story has been tripped up by disclosures about her professional and personal life.
In an interview a month ago, Palin disparaged the job of vice president, saying, “What is it exactly that the VP does every day?”
One role that she is going to play – and one that Cheney played – is helping to motivate the right wing of her party. The uproarious applause that capped her speech left little doubt that she had already moved easily into the job – a big boost for McCain, who has always had difficulty convincing social conservatives to trust him.