Tonight: Palin's 'baptism of fire'

Posted: September 03, 2008

In just five days, Sarah Palin has gone from obscure governor of a small, remote state to magazine and tabloid cover girl, stealing the Republican show in St. Paul from John McCain, the man who tapped her as his running mate.

Tonight, America will learn if the "hockey mom" who wants to be a heartbeat away from the presidency is ready for her close-up.

When the 44-year-old mother of five takes the stage at the Xcel Energy Center, it will be the first chance for millions of Americans to gauge the woman they've now heard so much about, from her teen daughter's unwed pregnancy to the crazy "Northern Exposure"-style politics of her home state. And she won't get a second chance to make a first impression.

"This is baptism by fire," said G. Terry Madonna, the political scientist and pollster from Franklin & Marshall College. "She's got to deliver a speech that makes it clear that, if she doesn't have the ability yet, that at least she can learn on the job. She has to be credible in that sense."

This convention wasn't supposed to be about the vice president, but since McCain announced the surprise pick on Friday, the media and many voters - arguably energized by a new and attractive face in a race that has dragged on for more than a year - could talk of little else.

Although the initial reaction of many pundits was to question the experience of a first-term governor whose prior political post was as mayor of a town of 8,471, Republicans continued to rally behind their fellow social conservative, and against the media.

"What a breath of fresh air Governor Sarah Palin is," Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, the failed presidential candidate, said in addressing the confab last night. "She is from a small town, with small-town values, but that's not good enough for those folks who are attacking her and her family. Let's be clear, the selection of Governor Palin has the other side and their friends in the media in a state of panic."

Likewise, conservative bellwether pundit Pat Buchanan, who was initially critical of McCain's surprise choice, pulled a 180-degree turn, writing last night that "[t]he arrival of Palin on the national scene, with her youth, charisma and vitality, probably also portends a changing of the guard in Washington."

Republican leaders clearly hoped to move beyond the flurry of news coverage about 17-year-old Bristol Palin and the stunning confirmation that she is five months pregnant. However, that may be difficult with new reports last night that the 18-year-old father - Levi Johnston, who is said to be preparing to marry Bristol Palin - would be coming to St. Paul for tonight's speech.

What's more, the New York Post is reporting that Johnston's MySpace page is a tad off message from the party's "family values" focus, with the high-school hockey star calling himself "a f---in' redneck" and adding that although he was in a relationship, "I don't want kids."

Actually, the pregnancy news - although the epic stuff of office-cooler gossip - wasn't so much what had political insiders worried last night as was a swirl of other disclosures about Palin and her family, including:

* Widespread reports that Palin's husband, Todd, was a registered member of a fringe political group - the Alaska Independence Party (AIP), which has called for Alaska to secede from the United States - and that Palin as an up-and-coming pol had also courted the party's support.

Particularly alarming were reports of comments by AIP founder Joe Vogler, who once said that "[t]he fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government."

* The Washington Post was reporting last night that Sarah and Todd Palin were part owners of an Anchorage car wash that was ordered dissolved by the state in 2007 - after she became governor - for failing to pay state licensing fees.

* There were other reports swirling around Palin, including one in Time magazine that as mayor of Wasilla, she threatened to fire the town librarian while pushing to ban certain books she believed had inappropriate language.

The reports raised new questions about whether Palin had been a hasty choice by McCain, who reportedly wanted at first to pick one of last night's convention speakers, Democratic turncoat Sen. Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut - and thus had not been properly vetted by campaign officials. McCain sought to defuse that controversy here in Philadelphia.

"The vetting process was completely thorough," he said during a stop at Engine Company 56, in Fox Chase, "and I'm grateful for the results."

The uproar has certainly taken some of the focus off McCain, even on the night when his biography and character was supposed to be front and center in St. Paul.

President Bush, who delayed his talk by one night because of Hurricane Gustav and spoke by satellite instead of in person, tried to bring the conversation back to national security.

"We live in a dangerous world," the president said. "And we need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001: that to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen, and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain." *

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