Waiting for Sarah

In a powerful night of prime time political choreography, the Republican National Convention Tuesday presented John McCain as a heroic patriot and a political maverick who, with running mate Sarah Palin, represents the best hope for "change" in America.

On a day when national polls showed McCain falling behind in the wake of last week's Democratic convention, his camp performed a sharp pivot in its central message: after months of framing the election as a referendum on Barack Obama, supporters last night focused instead on dramatic testaments to McCain's biography, character and values saying it is he, not Obama, who will shake up Washington.

At the same time, McCain scrambled to minimize damage generated by Palin's rocky introduction to voters, which has been marred by a series of negative news stories about her. Palin, whose nomination has galvanized the GOP's evangelical wing, will have her first major chance to speak to the nation on her own behalf Wednesday night, when the RNC expects to attract perhaps its largest TV audience of the week.

The shift in McCain's message Tuesday demonstrated not only his own independent-minded brand of politics, but also his campaign's fervent desire to disentangle him from the Bush Administration, at a time when the president is personally unpopular and his politics are blamed by many voters for widespread economic problems.

"Trust me," said Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who ran for vice president as a Democrat eight years but last night bashed his party's presidential nominee before gleeful Republicans, "God made only one John McCain, and he is his own man."

After losing the first night of its convention in Minnesota because of concerns about Hurricane Gustav, the Republicans came back strong in what, for many reasons, was an extraordinary evening of political drama:

"i ' Palin, the vice-presidential nominee, remained Topic A, at a time when attention would ordinarily be focused on the top of the ticket. Five days after McCain shocked the political world by choosing her as a running mate, Republicans sought to ease the fall-out from controversies about Palin's record and personal life that have generated questions about her readiness for national office. Every speaker last night, few of whom know her well, offered a ringing endorsement of Palin, positioning her as a working class hero and brave politician who attacks the status quo: "A strong executive and a prominent reformer," said First Lady Laura Bush, who introduced her husband.

"i ' President Bush, whose scheduled address on Monday was washed out by the hurricane, did not attend the convention, but instead delivered a brief speech by video hookup from the White House. It was a measure of how much McCain wants to distance himself from the incumbent, and his former party rival, that Bush did not make a personal appearance in the hall to say goodbye to party leaders and activists who nominated him twice. To his partisan credit, Bush testified to McCain's political independence: "He's not afraid to tell you what he believes believe me, I know."

"i ' The late President Reagan was honored in a biographical video following Bush's speech, a piece of political theatre that put further distance between the president and the encomiums to McCain that followed. The film showed old photos of Reagan with McCain, described as a "foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution," and described the former president as another "maverick," the night's favorite noun.

"i ' Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, whose desultory performance on the campaign trail last year doomed his short-lived presidential bid, lit up the hall with a free-swinging stem-winder of a keynote address, that featured a moving narrative account of McCain's Vietnam era service and five-year imprisonment in the "Hanoi Hilton" POW camp; offered red meat to his party with calls for tax cuts and opposition to abortion rights; and slashed at Obama as "history-making:in that he's the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for president."

"i ' Lieberman not only effusively praised McCain, a personal friend and colleague, but also directly criticized Obama, calling him a "gifted and eloquent young man" who is not yet ready to be president. "Eloquence is no substitute for a record," Lieberman said, making a direct appeal to other Democrats and to independents watching on television to cross party lines and vote for McCain in the interest of bipartisan politics. The speech probably doomed Lieberman to back-bench status in the Senate; although re-elected as an independent after losing his party primary several years ago, he has continued to caucus with Democrats and had been given the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee.

The shift in McCain's message was signaled before last night's sessions by campaign manager Rick Davis, who told the Washington Post in an interview that the election was more about personalities than policy.

"This election is not about issues," he said. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

Wednesday night, it will be Palin's turn to offer a "composite view" of herself to voters, the vast majority of whom will be seeing her for the first time. How she does could have a big effect on McCain's chances, and whether his campaign is able to move past the controversy still surrounding her.

event calendar sponsored by: