Without mentioning Democrat Barack Obama’s name and rarely losing a smile, the Alaska governor delivered one riposte after another.
“We’ve all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers,” she said. “But 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?
“The answer is to make government take more of your money, give you more orders from Washington and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world,” Palin concluded.
Palin’s poised and flawless performance evoked roars of applause from delegates who earlier this week might have worried that the surprise pick and newcomer to the national stage may not be up to the job.
When the nearly 40-minute address came to a close, however, all doubts were doused and Democrats were on notice that Palin will not flinch from the fight.
Palin’s speech so delighted some Republicans that they suggested it may instantly elevate her to GOP rock-star status and diminish presidential contenders who ran this year who may hope to seek the White House again.
“Who's most bummed?” asked one veteran Republican consultant. “Obama? Biden? Mitt? Huck? Damn that was good.”
A trickier question for Republicans, however, is whether putting a new face on a traditional playbook can produce victory in a election year when voters are clamoring for change in both foreign and domestic policy in Washington.
The Democrats are hoping it won’t. Nominee Barack Obama’s campaign issued a response that looked straight past Palin and linked her rhetoric to President Bush.
“The speech that Gov. Palin gave was well delivered, but it was written by George Bush’s speechwriter and sounds exactly like the same divisive, partisan attacks we’ve heard from George Bush for the last eight years,” said campaign spokesman Bill Burton.
The carefully crafted response also revealed the tricky road ahead Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, will face in taking on a ticket with the first Republican female vice presidential nominee.
Palin sent a signal that she could be as tenacious a rival in the next two months as Hillary Rodham Clinton was during the extended Democratic primary.
Obama only now is recovering from that showdown, and some former Clinton backers are still threatening to back the McCain-Palin ticket to make history.
In noted contrast to the Obama campaign’s tepid assessment of Palin, Sen. Harry Reid's spokesman Jim Manley offered a blunt response: "Shrill and sarcastic political attacks may fire up the Republican base, but they don't change the fact that a McCain-Palin administration would mean four more years of failed Bush-Cheney policies."
In many ways, Palin made it easier for them. Throughout her address, she never mentioned her opposition to abortion rights and support for gun rights — divisive issues that could alienate many voters.
Professor Dennis Michaud, 57, a Rhode Island delegate, said that “as a moderate Republican, she is fantastic.” Once the abortion issue is “set aside, I think the average American working-class person can really relate to her.”
Indeed, Palin struck the same critical themes that Clinton had used in the primary to drive Obama’s support among working-class families down.
She dredged up Obama’s comment that some rural voters are “bitter” and, thus, cling to religion and guns.
Contrasting her background as a mayor with the Ilinois senator’s experience as a community organizer, she brought the house down by saying: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”
Palin ad-libbed one of her best lines aimed at that same audience. “You know what they say is the difference between hockey moms and pit bulls? Lipstick.”
Jim Carabell, head of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Michigan, a critical swing state, gushed. “She’s one of us. I have four kids. My wife is a hockey mom,” Carabell said.
Ken Kachigian, a former Reagan communications adviser, was in the convention hall during Palin’s speech and praised her plain-spoken style. “She didn’t try to engage in oratory that was beyond her,” said Kachigian.
He also said she made good use of an old Reagan tactic, employing anecdotes to amplify her point.
Palin did that in one of her most pointed attacks, questioning how small businesses in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Minnesota — all swing states — would survive Obama tax hikes.
While Palin’s debut was widely dubbed a success, there is still more work to do.
A focus group of a dozen unmarried women who are either undecided voters or who are weak supporters of either Obama or McCain, convened in Las Vegas to discuss Palin’s speech as soon as it ended.
Two major themes emerged early on during their discussion: They still don’t feel they know enough about Palin — either personally or from a governing standpoint — and they are worried she doesn’t have the experience to take over the presidency should McCain die in office.
“The nation needs to know what her issues are,” said one woman, who, unprompted, added she needed to know more specifics about Palin’s policies because she worries about McCain’s advanced age.
Another woman quickly agreed: “He could just keel over at any moment,” she said, adding that she wants to know “just exactly what [Palin’s] going to do, more than just hearing about her family.”
Another woman chimed in, saying Palin should approach the campaign as someone who is “applying” for the job. “She has to apply for this job like she’s running for president. ... She’s going to have to sell herself.”
The focus group was one of two convened by Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and coordinated by Democratic pollsters Anna Greenberg and Stan Greenberg of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research. According to the nonprofit organization, the PAC is “dedicated to encouraging unmarried women to bring their voices to our nation’s political conversation and to advocate for policies important to them.” The group of unmarried women, as well as a separate group of married women that met simultaneously, included female voters between 30 and 60 years of age.
Ryan Grim, Lisa Lerer, Patrick O’Connor and Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this report.