Palin unleashes her inner pit bull

Times Staff Writer

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was an untraditional choice for the Republican ticket, but her acceptance speech Wednesday suggested that she will play a very traditional role as a vice presidential nominee: leading her party’s attack against the other side.

“You know what they say’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick,” she said, flashing a mauve smile.

Palin delivered the most important speech of her career with poise and pugnacity, extolling Republican presidential candidate John McCain as “an upright and honorable man” while throwing repeated jabs at Democratic nominee Barack Obama.


“We’ve all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers . . . but listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform,” she said. “This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word ‘victory’ except when he’s talking about his own campaign.”

But Wednesday was the easy part. Palin, who once worked as a television sportscaster and was known in Alaska as an effective speaker, was talking to a friendly audience that welcomed her criticisms of Obama. And she was using a well-polished text, drafted by campaign speechwriters and tested in rehearsals over several days.

The more difficult test, Republican strategists said, lies ahead -- in unscripted interviews, campaign appearances and a debate with her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, on Oct. 8.

“I think they’ve set a pretty low bar for her,” said former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, arguing that as long as Palin doesn’t commit a major gaffe she will be “a significant asset” to his party’s ticket.

Supporters were buoyant after the speech. “She hit it out of the park. She cleared every bar,” said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1996. “Republicans ought to be very happy about how she framed the race . . . that Obama wants to raise taxes and McCain wants to lessen government.”

“It was a good speech,” agreed Tad Devine, a strategist for John F. Kerry’s unsuccessful Democratic bid in 2004. But, he added, “it was a good speech for the partisan Republican base. I don’t think it spoke much to swing voters. . . . She didn’t really go into the economic issues that are a driving issue in this election.”


The campaign’s immediate goal, a senior McCain advisor said, is to help Palin “settle in” to her role as a national candidate and hope the tempest of media stories subsides. They include controversies over her firing of subordinates and seeking federal money for local projects as well as the surprise announcement that one of her unmarried daughters is pregnant.

“People pay attention to a vice presidential nominee only at the convention and the debate,” said the advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue. “She’s only interesting if she [messes] up.”

After the convention concludes today, McCain and Palin are expected to campaign together Friday. Later, Palin will go to battleground states including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the advisor said, as part of a strategy aimed at increasing the enthusiasm, activism and turnout of conservative voters, a gambit similar to George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign, which won in part by turning out record numbers of Republican voters.

McCain strategists also hoped Palin’s nomination and her personal story would appeal to women, including moderate Democrats who voted for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her unsuccessful bid for her party’s presidential nomination. Palin is the first woman nominated on a Republican ticket.

“McCain and Palin don’t need to win over all Hillary Clinton voters,” said Dan Schnur, a McCain advisor during the 2000 presidential campaign. “Just a subset.”

But current advisors acknowledged that the evidence is not yet clear whether that strategy will work. A CBS News Poll released Wednesday found that 60% of voters polled this week did not know enough about Palin to have a view of her.


That means Palin has plenty of room to win voters’ support -- or to alienate them if significant negative information surfaces about her.

As for the torrent of media stories about Palin over the last five days, most Republicans at the convention don’t think they come anywhere close to disqualifying her from the ticket.

“You haven’t mentioned anything that amounts to anything,” Thompson said.

But they acknowledge that the more important issue is whether the Palin controversies prompt voters to draw adverse conclusions about McCain, either that he made a bad choice or that he chose the Alaska governor without sufficient vetting.

Attacking the media has become an open, systematic part of the campaign’s strategy.

On Wednesday morning, the campaign released a statement from strategist Steve Schmidt denouncing “a faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee for vice president of the United States who has never been a part of the old boys’ network that has come to dominate the news establishment in this country.”

Then the campaign arranged a news conference for prominent Republican women to denounce what they called unfair media accounts of Palin’s record as governor.

“The Republican Party will not stand by while Sarah Palin is subjected to sexist attacks,” said former Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina.


“All of us up here have been subjected to the stereotype of show horse, not workhorse,” Fiorina said. “They are trying to treat her as a show horse, to say ‘nice little girl, nice show horse, but not qualified.’ ”

Palin didn’t complain about sexism in her speech, but she did say: “I’m not going to Washington to seek [the media’s] good opinion; I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this country.”

“The media are now part of the McCain campaign plan,” the senior McCain advisor said. “The tactic is to make the media part of what we’re running against. . . . The media are less popular than the Congress.”

Thompson, a veteran of decades of political campaigns, said he wasn’t surprised by the volume and intensity of the media’s Palin coverage.

“She’s the only story in town,” he said, shrugging.

But he added that a tussle with the media can often leave a candidate stronger -- if the candidate survives.

“I think this is probably inuring to her benefit,” he said.