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With rousing convention speech, Palin becomes a force in McCain candidacy

Lukewarm before, conservatives are now ready to work for the GOP ticket, delegates say.

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On Wednesday night, Palin took the stage at the Xcel Energy Center loaded for bear – and ready to take on the traditional vice presidential role of attack dog.

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"Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my home town," she said. "And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

She was alluding to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's time in inner-city Chicago as a community organizer, helping low-income residents deal with issues such as housing and schools.

She also went after Senator Obama's wife, Michelle, who once said that for the first time in her adult life, she was "really proud" of her country. Speaking of people in small-town America, Palin said: "They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America."

And she went after Obama for one of his biggest campaign gaffes, a private comment during a San Francisco fundraiser that rural Americans are bitter and cling to their guns and religion.

"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. "We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton [Pa.] and another way in San Francisco."

The one unscripted aside in her speech may end up being the most memorable line. "You know what the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."

Her willingness to show teeth in her first solo appearance on the national stage gave hope to many in the hall that the troubled Republican Party won't go down in November without a fight. And to at least one mother in the crowd, Palin gives the party a voice of authenticity.

"I loved that she didn't try to hide that she's a mom, and that raising kids is hard, and that she didn't try to make herself out to be something that she wasn't," says Amanda Ficek, a mother of three from Minneapolis. "I just thought she was so real. I'm inspired."

Ms. Ficek says she's not concerned that Palin would be a heartbeat away from the presidency, if her ticket wins.

"Do I think Joe Biden is definitely ready to run the country?" she asks. "No, I don't really think he is either. So that just doesn't scare me away. I feel like she's the type who would get in there and figure it out."

Ficek is another member of the conservative base who is now energized by the GOP ticket in a way that she was not by McCain alone.

"There's a real possibility that [Palin] could be more important than a typical vice presidential candidate," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. In helping energize the party's conservative base, she could be making up for a "perceived deficit" at the top of the ticket, he adds.

But what happens among more moderate, independent voters remains an open question.

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