BY DAVID ESPO
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin claimed her historic spot on the Republican ticket Wednesday night, uncorking a smiling, slashing attack on Barack Obama and vowing to help presidential candidate John McCain bring real change to Washington. Scarcely known a week ago, she drew tumultuous cheers from the Republican National Convention.
“Victory in Iraq is finally in sight; he wants to forfeit,” she said of Obama. “Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America; he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.”
The 44-year-old Palin had top billing on the third night of the convention. The first woman vice presidential candidate in party history, she spoke to uncounted millions of viewers at home in her solo national debut.
To the delight of the delegates, McCain strolled unexpectedly onto the convention stage after the speech and hugged his running mate.
“Don’t you think we made the right choice” for vice president? he said as his delegates roared their approval. It was an unspoken reference to the convention-week controversy that has greeted her, including the disclosure that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter was pregnant.
The packed convention hall exploded in cheers as McCain stood with Palin and her family — including mother-to-be Bristol and the father, 18-year-old Levi Johnston.
The audience also shouted in agreement at line after line delivered by the 44-year-old Alaska governor.
She had top billing at the convention on a night delegates also lined up for a noisy roll call of the states to deliver their presidential nomination to McCain. At 72, the Arizona senator is the oldest first-time nominee in history, collecting his party’s top prize after pursuing it for the better part of a decade.
Palin drew cheers from the moment she stepped onto the convention stage, hundreds of camera flashes reflecting off her glasses.
If McCain and his campaign’s high command had any doubt about her ability at the convention podium, they needn’t have. With her youthful experience as a sportscaster and time spent in the governor’s office, her timing was flawless, her appeal to the crowd obvious.
“Our family has the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and the same joys,” she said as the audience signaled its understanding.
Palin traced her career from the local PTA to the governor’s office, casting herself as a maverick in the McCain mold, and seemed to delight in poking fun at her critics and her ticket mate’s political rivals.
Since taking office as governor, she said she had taken on the oil industry, brought the state budget into surplus and vetoed nearly half a billion dollars in wasteful spending.
“I thought we could muddle through without the governor’s personal chef — although I’ve got to admit that sometimes my kids sure miss her.”
Not surprisingly, her best-received lines were barbs at Obama.
“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” she said, a reference to Obama’s stint as a community organizer.
“I might add that in small towns we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t,” she said.
That was a reference to Obama’s springtime observation about some frustrated working-class Americans.
By contrast, she said of McCain: “Take the maverick out of the Senate. Put him in the White House.
“He’s a man who’s there to serve his country, and not just his party.”
“In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers,” she said in another cutting reference to Obama’s campaign theme. “And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.”
A parade of party luminaries preceded Palin to the convention podium, and Republicans packing the hall cheered every attack on Obama.
“He’s never run a city, never run a state, never run a business, never run a military unit. He’s never had to lead people in crisis,” said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani of McCain’s rival.
“This is not a personal attack … it’s a statement of fact — Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada.”
Palin also jabbed at the news media, which have raised convention week questions about her background and her family.
“Here’s little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion — I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this country.”
McCain arrived in the Republican National Convention city earlier in the day to accept the prize of a political lifetime. Instantly, defended his choice of a running mate, saying she was ready to serve as commander in chief after less than two years as governor of Alaska.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said in an ABC interview.
“Having been the governor of our largest state, the commander of their National Guard, she was once in charge of their natural resources assets actually, until she found out there was corruption and she quit.”
McCain’s remarks dovetailed with an effort by his campaign to depict Palin’s critics as out to destroy the first female running mate in party history.
While she readied the speech of her career, McCain’s top strategist, Steve Schmidt, complained about a “faux media scandal,” generated, he said, by “the old boys’ network that has come to dominate the news establishment.”
Little is known nationally of her views, although a video surfaced during the day of a speech she made at her church in June in which she said U.S. troops had been sent to Iraq “on a task that is from God.”
Not everyone was quite on message, though.
“I think that Gov. Palin and Sen. Obama do not have extensive experience in government,” Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania told reporters. He said she has potential, and judged Obama a “political phenomenon, no doubt about it.”
Whatever Palin’s impact on the race, McCain’s story was among the most arresting in recent presidential politics.
The son and grandson of admirals, he had a rebellious youth by his own account, running up a healthy ledger of demerits at the Naval Academy. Shot down over Vietnam, he was held and tortured for more than five years before his release. Along the way, he turned down an offer of early freedom from captors eager for a propaganda boost.
Elected to Congress in 1982, he moved to the Senate in 1986 as a Reagan Republican. Soon singed by the “Keating Five” scandal, involving the savings and loan industry, he shifted course.
He began carving out a maverick’s role, championing legislation to reduce the influence of money in politics and fighting wasteful government spending.
Increasingly over the years, he parted company with fellow Republicans on issues as diverse as tobacco, health care, immigration, judicial nominees, a commission to investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the use of torture in interrogations and more.
He first ran for president in 2000, but lost the GOP nomination to George Bush in a bitter struggle.
As the early front-runner eight years later, he watched helplessly as anger with the Iraq war drained him of the support of independents while conservatives deserted because of legislation giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.