It was the loudest and most prolonged cheer since Barack Obama appeared on the podium last week in Denver. Very few people had heard of Sarah Palin when Mr Obama delivered his acceptance speech eight days ago. One vice-presidential announcement, several news cycles and countless debates about sexism later, Ms Palin had been catapulted into starring role at a rejuvenated Republican
Given the fluid nature of this presidential race, most analysts say it is much too early to pronounce whether Ms Palin’s widely praised acceptance speech was the “game changer” that some Republicans claimed on Wednesday night. But in the near term Ms Palin’s “hockey mom” address has already accomplished three things. First it has energised the Republican party’s conservative base.
Self-declared evangelicals make up roughly a third of the Republican vote and a high turnout can make the important difference between victory and defeat in swing states such as Ohio. Until recently, many social conservatives offered only lukewarm support for John McCain and some remained hostile. But Mr McCain’s unequivocal pronouncement last month that human life begins at conception and his selection of Ms Palin, a staunch opponent of abortion, have enthused the religious block to an extent few anticipated.
“He’s given energy and excitement to this ticket that wasn’t there before and that is going to be crucial to getting the work done on the ground that you need to win elections,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist.
Second, Ms Palin’s selection caught the Obama campaign off-guard. In her speech, Ms Palin mocked Mr Obama’s set-piece speech at the Mile High Stadium in Denver last week. “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?” she said.
As a young, reform-minded governor, who rose to prominence in Alaska by taking on the state’s corruption-scarred Republican establishment, she threatens to undercut Mr Obama’s monopoly on “change” and reinvigorate Mr McCain’s maverick reputation. “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.
For almost the first time since the presidential race started more than a year ago, the media fascination surrounding Ms Palin has allowed the McCain campaign to dominate the news agenda. The effect has been to rob Mr Obama of the momentum he hoped to take from the successful Democratic convention.
More than 37m people watched Ms Palin’s speech on television, according to initial estimates – about half the number that tuned in for Mr Obama’s Denver address but high for a vice-presidential nominee.
The third main benefit brought by Ms Palin is her ability to help the Republicans frame this election around culture and values rather than the economy. Wednesday night’s convention was supposed to be devoted to “prosperity”.
But the economy was barely mentioned. “If this election is about culture we win, if it’s about the economy, they do,” a Republican congressman told the FT.
Ms Palin’s popularity among Republicans stems in large part from her social conservatism 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 supposedly represented by Mr Obama.
Ms Palin has arguably been assisted by what some including senior officials in Hillary Clinton’s former presidential campaign believe was the borderline sexist treatment Ms Palin received from the mainstream media. That provided Ms Palin with a cue to play the feisty underdog doing battle with the liberal establishment. “As I have 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,” she said.
Matt Towery, pollster and former aide to Newt Gingrich, said Democratic attacks and hostile media scrutiny of Ms Palin would only increase her popularity among Republicans and earn her sympathy among uncommitted voters. “The only people who are upset about the way the media and liberal bloggers are running with this [Palin] story are Barack Obama and David Axelrod [the Obama campaign manager] because they are smart enough to realise that absolutely no good going to come from it,” he said.
Ms Palin faces far sterner tests as she embarks on the treacherous world of swing state campaigning. Her televised debate with Joe Biden, the more experienced Democratic vice-presidential candidate, could be a make-or-break moment. But she no longer looks like the liability many Democrats hoped a week ago.