After a sluggish start to their convention in the Twin Cities--day one was lost to Hurricane Gustav and day two was spent focusing on John McCain's service--Republicans showed their teeth early on Wednesday and didn't let up. While most of the attention was given, rightfully so, to the night's closing act, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a series of former McCain rivals primed the rowdy crowd. They gave the crowd what they wanted, bringing life to the Xcel Center for the first time this week. It was a night of cliched attacks on liberal bogeymen and ad hominem strikes against the Democratic nominee. It may have thrilled the party faithful, but it did little to expand their potential electorate. Though the conservative (and liberal) base left united and energized--"she's our Obama" one commentator said afterward--McCain still has plenty to accomplish tomorrow.
Mitt Romney kicked things off with a rather ironic diatribe against East Coast elites--because Romney is the symbol of the middle class working man of the Midwest--before an extended rant against liberalism that would have made sense if this were 1980, 1988, or even 1994. Of course, it's 2008, so his attacks probably fell flat for anyone outside of the Bush 30%. Romney perspective was almost comical, painting Washington as a bastion of liberalism as if the last eight years never happened. He apparently forgot that Republicans controlled the Congress for 12 years before being swept out of power in 2006. It also must have slipped his mind that George W. Bush is the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That only two of the current Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic administrations probably isn't important to note either. That amnesia held throughout the night, as speaker after speaker came to the podium to denounce the status quo in Washington--a brilliant display of up is down politics that must have made Karl Rove happy. With his sights clearly set on 2012, Romney did little to advance McCain's cause.
Mike Huckabee followed with his customary folksy tone, repeating a line that I've heard often in the past few days--that Sarah Palin received more votes running for mayor of Wasilla than Joe Biden did running for president. It's a cute line, but isn't even close to the truth. The rest of his time at the podium was largely forgettable.
Rudy Giuliani was the third former presidential contender to take the stage, serving as the convention's keynote speaker. The former mayor went after Barack Obama with gusto, focusing on national security and taxes, while attacking the Democratic nominee's resume. He had to modify a favorite line from the primaries, pointing to Obama's lack of experience in saying, "He's never run a city, he's never run a state, he's never run a business." This time, however, Giuliani added "military unit" to his list of executive experiences so as to cover the Republican nominee. Later, chants of "Zero" and "Drill, baby, drill" rose from the floor as he derided Obama's work as a community organizer and painted him as a celebrity elitist. Giuliani was positively giddy by the time he left the stage, though by milking the crowd, he forced the convention organizers to cut a biographical video about Sarah Palin from the program. In doing so, he deprived the convention of a necessary opportunity to introduce their vice presidential nominee to the country--especially significant since Palin's own speech would dwell only briefly on her background.
Primed and ready, the crowd erupted when Palin finally took the stage. She remarked early on that the only difference between a pit bull and hockey mom was lipstick and she would prove it. Some of her attacks proved effective, because they came from a perspective where voters could relate to her. "We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco," Palin said, referencing Obama's "bitter" remarks at an April fundraiser. "There are some candidates who use change to promote their careers," she proclaimed, drawing a distinction between the two nominees. "And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change." Other attacks simply lacked any credibility and after a while it was all a bit too much sarcastic and petty. She had spent too much time trying to define her opponent and not enough defining herself.
The imagery was there. She was the average Joe (Jane?), the outsider, the hockey mom, and the spunky attack dog. Palin was able to rise above the soap opera that had surrounded her. Shots of the jubilant governor after the speech with her family on stage were certainly stirring for a number of voters across the country. Beyond the political theater, however, Palin glossed over the issues and did little to defend her selection. She deflected with criticism of the media and Obama's resume. When Palin did focus on her own record, she surprisingly claimed again that she had opposed the so-called "Bridge To Nowhere" even though her version of the story has been thoroughly debunked. She did touch on other points of reform as governor and mayor, but those points were drowned out by the attacks that followed. It was simply too much style and not enough substance from someone who remains a mystery to most Americans.
Palin's first week on the national stage proved a bumpy one, but she proved last night that she could handle the spotlight. It was a critical first test, but there will be plenty more to come. Her political skills and personal appeal will be tested as she travels to Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in the coming days and weeks. Will her pit bull tenacity and girl next door quality woo working class voters and suburban women? Or will these voters question her readiness to be commander-in-chief and be turned off by her right wing stances on a number of issues? Thirty-seven million tuned in to her speech, nearly equaling Obama's audience last week, but at the end of the night a number of questions lingered.
John McCain is set to take the stage tonight and his objectives seem clear. He will emphasize his maverick record, using it to reach out to the independent voters that his convention has thus far ignored. McCain will also paint his vision of America's future, though any discussion of the issues will surely be slanted toward his perceived strengths--the troop surge in Iraq, offshore drilling, and taxes. His difficulties with formal speeches are well documented and he has a tough act to follow, but he needs to give the speech of his life for this convention to be deemed a success.
Cross-posted at Political Realm.