Many Republicans fell head over heels for Sarah Palin almost the moment John McCain announced her as his running mate last week. On Wednesday night, that initial lust turned into a full blown love affair.
She was greeted by a long and raucous standing ovation and the cheers grew louder as she settled into an accomplished speech that mixed folksy biography with punchy rhetoric – including some surprisingly sharp-edged attacks against Barack Obama.
Hundreds of handmade signs bearing the slogan “Palin Power” bobbed up and down in the crowd and shouts of “I love you Sarah” ricocheted around the arena.
The Alaska governor would have received a rousing reception regardless of her performance, as Republicans circled the wagons around their new heroine after days of Democratic attacks and hostile media scrutiny.
But there was nothing artificial about the energy and enthusiasm that crackled across the convention hall at the end of her speech. After months of depression and unrest, this was the moment when belief and resolve returned to the Republican rank and file.
Ms Palin’s popularity stems in large part from her social conservatism as a staunch opponent of abortion and more broadly from her rugged, small-town values as a lifelong enthusiast of hunting and fishing. On Wednesday, she tried to extend her earthy appeal beyond the conservative base by portraying herself as an “ordinary mom” and champion of average voters against the elite liberals allegedly represented by Mr Obama.
“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 listening,” she said, referring to notorious remarks by Mr Obama at a closed-door fundraising dinner in San Francisco. “We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.”
She answered Democratic mockery of her spell as mayor of Wasilla, a town of 8,500 people, by drawing attention to Mr Obama’s own background as a community organiser in Chicago. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organiser,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” she said, to hoots of derision at Mr Obama’s expense.
Ms Palin spent the first several minutes of her speech introducing family members watching on from the stands, from her part-Inuit husband, Todd – a champion snowmobile rider and commercial fisherman – to their four-month-old son, Trig, the youngest of five children.
There was also a name check for their 19-year-old son, Track, who is scheduled to deploy to Iraq with the army on September 11 - and a more fleeting reference to Bristol, their 17-year-old unmarried daughter who is five months pregnant.
She recounted her experience taking on Alaska’s oil industry and corruption-scarred political establishment, casting herself as a Washington outsider who will help Mr McCain shake up the status quo. One of her first acts of governor, she said, was to sell the state’s private jet on eBay.
“I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment,” she said. “And I’ve learned quickly, these past few days, that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.”
That line got one of the loudest cheers of the night and prolonged cat calls in the direction of the press seats. Republicans are never happier than when in the thick of a fight with the “liberal” media.
She went on to trash Mr Obama’s reform credentials and portrayed him as a young-politician-in-a-hurry, while casting Mr McCain as someone who had always put the national interest before personal ambition. “In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change,” she said.
Afterwards, Republicans in the hall expressed delight about the speech.
Jim Backlin, vice president of the Christian Coalition of America, said the speech would be remembered as the one that sealed Mr McCain’s electoral victory. “There’s not going to be a problem with the debate,” he said, referring to Ms Palin’s encounter with Joe Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, in October.
A heavyweight list of Republicans helped warm up the crowd for Ms Palin, including Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, who delivered the fiercest attacks of the night against Mr Obama. “He is the least experienced candidate for president in at least the last 100 years. He has never led anything, nothing, nada,” he said.
Mr Giuliani derided Democrats for seldom mentioning the September 2001 terrorist attacks during their convention in Denver last week and claimed the party was too scared and politically correct to use the words “Islamic terrorism”.
His calls for the lifting of a ban on fresh oil drilling in US waters – one of the main rallying cries for Republicans in this election – was met by chants of “Drill, baby, drill”.
Earlier in the evening, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney also took turns to throw red meat to the faithful. The two men were bitter rivals in this year’s Republican primaries and helped clear the path to victory for Mr McCain by splitting the conservative vote.
While both men have since fallen loyally behind Mr McCain, neither has bothered to conceal their continued contempt for each other. Underlying their tense relationship is the possibility that they could again be rivals for the Republican nomination in 2012 if Mr McCain fails in November. But if either is secretly rooting for Mr Obama, they did a good job of disguising it.
Raucous chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” rolled around the arena as Mr Romney praised Mr McCain’s commitment to hunting down al-Qaeda and to “defeat evil”.
As in the primaries, it was Mr Huckabee, a charismatic former Baptist preacher, who had the best lines. The media’s treatment of Ms Palin had been “tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert”, he said, joking that the Alaska governor had won more votes in her previous job as mayor of Wasilla than Mr Biden won as a presidential candidate this year.