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Palin Steps on the Big Stage

Speech Announces Her Arrival

With the spotlight set to shine on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in prime time tonight, it will be the first major test for the presumptive GOP vice presidential nominee, who was anonymous to most Americans just one week ago.

Palin’s status as a virtual political unknown and the first woman on a GOP ticket brings an anticipation rarely associated with vice presidential acceptance speeches.

Republicans say Palin has an opportunity to cut through the “fog” of stories about her family and various Alaska controversies to highlight that she and presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) are agents of change.

While the unconventional and historic pick of the self-described hockey mom has unified and energized the conservative Republican base and the convention delegates who have descended on St. Paul, Republicans say she has to speak to the needs and struggles that Americans are facing and make the case that she and McCain will be better prepared to respond to them than the Democratic ticket of Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Joseph Biden (Del.).

“Palin’s speech on Wednesday is very important,” GOP consultant Jon Lerner said. “If she’s able to tune out all of the elitist criticism and just be herself, the rest of America will like her as much as Alaskans do.”

Just as important as the content of Palin’s speech will be how she comes across to TV viewers, Lerner said. He noted that while pundits have focused on her résumé and lack of national experience, most voters watching will not be forming first impressions based on those factors. Rather, people will look to her poise and comfort on the national stage.

The revelation Monday that Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is pregnant could actually help her connect to parents who face similar challenges of juggling work and family, many Republicans in St. Paul said.

“There’s not a parent in America that doesn’t sympathize with what they are going through,” said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the convention parliamentarian.

“I think it makes her more relatable to people,” Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) said. “This is real life.”

Fallin also said that questions about Palin’s ability to handle dual roles as a mother and as vice president are “sexist against men.”

“I think Todd Palin is perfectly capable of taking care of his family” and supporting his wife, she said.

Fallin predicted that people will relate to her story as a mother of five children, who rose quickly in politics to beat the state’s old boys network and took on corruption and oil companies.

“She’s already proven to be tough and to have true grit,” Fallin said. “They’ll fall in love with her.”

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said McCain clearly gave up something on the experience argument by picking Palin, but he needed to fortify his case as an agent of change. “It’s not someone who’s steeped in Washington for 36 years like Biden. … She adds a little bit of spice to the ticket. If she’s the spice, Biden added mayonnaise.”

But Palin has to deliver, both in her speech tonight and especially in the vice presidential debate, Davis said.

“I don’t think all this other background noise has really laid a glove on her,” Davis said. Reporters “are looking for some reason to show she’s not qualified. … Every journalist in the country wants to make their reputation on this. That’s really the danger in picking someone who hasn’t been in the public eye.”

Davis, a moderate who is retiring this year, said Palin’s ability to connect with the plight of more average Americans is much needed. He also said Democrats have to be careful in how they attack Palin or else risk a backlash.

“The more they bang her on this stuff, the better she may do,” Davis said.

The Wednesday night program remained in flux besides Palin, as convention organizers planned to reshuffle their deck of speakers. Among those likely to speak, convention officials said, include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and campaign officials were also deciding whether Cindy McCain would speak tonight or Thursday.

The order might depend on television network coverage as the campaign is pleading for extra time given that Hurricane Gustav wiped out Monday night.

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