Sarah Palin, who vaulted from obscurity to controversy as the Republican candidate for vice president, cast herself Wednesday night as a reformer and a fighter, gleefully tearing into Democrat Barack Obama.
Making her prime-time TV debut, the Alaska governor mixed a homey account of domestic life in the frontier wilderness with barbed attacks that left no doubt about her relish for political combat.
“This is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform -- not even in the state Senate,” she said of the Democrats’ presidential nominee. “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.”
She mocked the elaborate stage set of Obama’s acceptance speech last week and the presidential-type seal his campaign used once, pressing GOP assertions that Obama’s candidacy is little more than a vainglorious tilt at celebrity.
“When the cloud of rhetoric has passed, when the roar of the crowd fades away, when the stadium lights go out and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot, what exactly is our opponent’s plan?” she asked, to a roar from delegates at the Republican National Convention. “What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he’s done turning back the waters and healing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger, take more of your money, give you more orders from Washington and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world.”
Greeted by a thunderous ovation lasting nearly three minutes, Palin sought to turn recent negative publicity to her advantage, casting herself as a victim of hostile reporters and a scornful Washington establishment. “Here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators,” she said. “I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this great country.”
She defended her relative lack of political experience -- four years as mayor of the small town of Wasilla and less than two years as Alaska governor -- by swiping at Obama and one of his first jobs out of college. “Since our opponents in the presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves,” Palin said of her years at City Hall. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”
She also took after Obama for his unguarded remark at a San Francisco fundraiser that small-town Americans, embittered by tough times, seek refuge in guns and religion. “We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco,” she said.
She vouched for McCain in a series of laudatory passages. Looking into the TV cameras, she urged Americans: “Take the maverick of the Senate and put him in the White House.”
Virtually unknown outside of Alaska a week ago, Palin was the unquestioned star on the third night of the hurricane-shortened convention. Delegates cheered her long and lustily, a stark contrast to the media hazing she has faced amid embarrassing personal and political revelations.
Afterward, she was joined onstage by her family and, unexpectedly, McCain, who was drowned out with affirmative cheers when he hollered, “Don’t you think we made the right choice for the next vice president of the United States? And what a beautiful family!”
At the end of the night, after TV’s prime time, McCain was formally nominated in a suspense-free roll call vote.
Before Palin took the stage, the McCain campaign was on the offense. Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief strategist, issued a statement saying officials would no longer answer questions about the vice presidential selection process, suggesting reporters were out to “destroy the first female Republican nominee.” Hours later, a group of GOP women held a contentious news conference in which they accused the media of unfair and sexist reporting.
“So many women around this country appreciate the way that Sarah Palin brings a broad and very diverse footing and foundation of experience to play,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. “Every woman in this room knows that if you can handle being a room mother . . . a PTA chairman, a Girl Scout cookie mom, there are a lot of things you have the ability, the organizational skills to handle.”
McCain, who has pursued the GOP presidential nomination for nearly a decade, arrived Wednesday to claim his prize. Bounding off his chartered 737, he was greeted by the McCain and Palin families. Also on hand was Levi Johnston, 18, the fiance of Bristol Palin, the governor’s 17-year-old pregnant daughter. McCain hugged Bristol, then put his arms around the young couple.
Inside the convention hall, the program turned from Tuesday’s testimonials to an emphasis on policy, with promises to cut taxes, streamline government, expand domestic energy production -- “Drill, baby, drill!” the crowd repeatedly roared -- and, above all, overhaul the way Washington does business. Speakers sought to sap Obama’s most potent political weapon: the promise of change.
“You know, many people talk about changing Washington,” said Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard head and a McCain economic advisors. “John McCain has the knowledge, the guts and now, in Sarah Palin, the partner he needs to actually get it done.”
Three former McCain rivals joined the chorus, blaming Democrats for everything wrong with Washington, though the party has been out of power for much of the last eight years. There was virtually no mention of President Bush.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the federal government had been “looking to the Eastern elites” for guidance. “We need change all right,” he said. “Change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee offered a nod to the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy, then fell in with the night’s theme. “John McCain doesn’t want the kind of change that allows the government to reach deeper into your paycheck and pick your doctor, your child’s school, or even the kind of car you drive or how much you inflate the tires,” he said. The latter was an allusion to Obama’s suggestion that motorists save energy by keeping their tires properly inflated.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, his voice tinged with sarcasm, questioned Obama’s experience and judgment, saying “the safety and security” of the U.S. is at stake. “The choice in this election comes down to substance over style,” he said. “John has been tested. Barack Obama has not. Tough times require strong leadership, and this is no time for on-the-job training.”
But all the oratory was just a warm-up for the week’s most anticipated speaker.
Palin’s ascent to the national stage has been rapid and rocky, which may have made her more sympathetic to the party faithful crammed into St. Paul’s downtown sports arena. She was unveiled as McCain’s surprise pick Friday. She soon went into seclusion amid unflattering reports, including accounts of her pursuit of pork-barrel projects and an investigation into her firing of Alaska’s public safety commissioner. The campaign also announced her daughter’s pregnancy and confirmed that her husband was once arrested on drunken driving charges.
Palin may have been referring to the last few days when she said, “Our family has the same ups and downs as any other . . . the same challenges and the same joys.”
She spoke lovingly of her husband and five children, the oldest of whom will soon deploy to Iraq. Palin drew a big laugh when she described herself as just “an average hockey mom,” with this qualifier: The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is “lipstick.”
She then talked of how as a governor she “shook things up”: selling the state’s private jet, firing the governor’s personal chef, taking on corrupt politicians and fighting oil and gas companies (though she did not mention that the fight was over raising their taxes).
“I pledge to all Americans that I will carry myself in this spirit,” Palin said, “as vice president of the United States.”
Times staff writers Bob Drogin and Maeve Reston and Chicago Tribune reporter Jim Tankersley contributed to this report.