Palin's Show-Stopper Boosts GOP Hopes 

ST PAUL --

Wow! So John McCain may have been onto something after all.

Like the Democrats in Denver, the Republicans in Minnesota opted on their penultimate convention night to feature glimpses of some of their leading lights.

The Democrats had been able to offer star turns from a former president, Bill Clinton, and from their previous nominee for the White House, John Kerry. Given that the former was constitutionally prohibited from running again and it was impossible to imagine a groundswell in favor of the latter hazarding another try, the party's future had been spoken to by a relatively bland bench -- Senators Birch Bayh, Jack Reed, and other discarded vice-presidential prospects.

Then had come vice-presidential Joe Biden, a new face to the public, perhaps, but an old warhorse familiar to he mainstream media. Not a bad show, all in all, but nothing unexpected.

On Wednesday night at the Xcel Energy Center, the Republicans had ponied up their three leading runners-up for the big prize itself - in sequence, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani. All managed to rouse a crowd that clearly came ready to be roused -- Romney with familiar nostrums dividing the world of political possibility between liberal solutions (bad) and conservative ones (good), Huckabee with the same hint of compassion and road-straddling policies that had made him a surprise contender at the beginning of the year, and Giuliani with a flurry of rhetorical punches (some of them arguably below-the-belt) and the wicked grin of somebody with nothing to lose and determined to have fun.

Again, nothing unexpected, but a presentable show.

But the last act was something else. It is one thing to come upon a stage like an impressive unknown and perform well enough at a recital to draw enthusiastic applause. It is quite another to come out of nowhere (not one of ten thousand seasoned political junkies had ever heard of Sarah Palin before last week when GOP standard-bearer John McCain pulled her out of the hat) and come on like Pavarotti.

Let's put it this way: When MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, the acerbic, silver-tongued spokesman for all things liberal and Democratic, begins his post-speech commentary on a Republican speaker with this sentence, "It was clearly a great speech," you have just seen a genuine show-stopper.

Much of the advance conversation, not only from journalists covering the convention but from the delegates and alternates themselves, went like this: If she blows it, McCain is done for; if she does well, he has a chance to look good and maintain his hopes.

Palin did neither of the above. Drawing perhaps on her past service as a TV sportscaster, the former small-town mayor and current Alaska governor delivered a genuine stunner of a speech. In her confident bearing, in her jaunty delivery, in her faultless timing, Palin transcended the occasional bromides of her text (a goodly portion of which was written by McCain's staff) and presented to a curious nation a persona to reckon with.

Her speech, like those of her previously mentioned podium precursors, was in the attack mode and was sprinkled with zingers, like this one:

And though both Senator Obama and Senator Biden have been going on lately about how they are always, quote, "fighting for you," let us face the matter squarely. There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you ... in places where winning means survival and defeat means death ... and that man is John McCain.

It was blunt and hard, an unexpected rabbit punch, coming from a PTA-looking lady clad not in a pantsuit like the Democratic star whom she vaguely echoed but in plain-Jane attire and short skirt unabashedly flashing some leg. "Hockey-mom," she called herself, but there was something of the bowling-team member about her, so that the lines quoted above had an Everyman quality to them.

Or should we say "Everywoman." For that phrase "only one man" highlighted her uniqueness in this quartet of major-party finalists whom the nation must judge. She was suddenly not only the modern female rising to power but the ancient one as well, choosing between the rival males about her on the basis of their sensed qualities.

Building up McCain had been one of her tasks, and she did that admirably. Presenting a rationale for her own governance had been another, and that, too, Palin accomplished, with recollections from her brief professional life and the rudiments of a reform plan. Finally, there was the matter of her problem family, an issue which Palin hit head on by trotting out on stage the whole kit and caboodle of them, ex-DUI hubby, pregnant unwed daughter, and all.

Love me, love my family, the gesture said. And who, after all, doesn't at some level have a problem family? Think Reagan, think Carter, think the Kennedys.

Sarah Palin still has much to prove. Her resume is scantness itself, and she'll still have a lot of 'splaining to do on almost all matters, from the commander-in-chief level on down to matters of policy-execution. But as auditions go, it was a hell of a good show.

The audience in the Xcel Center loved it. If the audience at home did, as well, and if presidential nominee McCain can hold up his end on Thursday night, the Republican team has a chance of coming out of this convention with a modest lead in the polls.

Who'd 'a thunk it?

Go here for the full text of Palin's remarks.

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