Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin went after the Democratic ticket repeatedly in her speech Wednesday night at the Republican convention.

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.

They didn't call her "Sarah Barracuda" in high school for nothing.

Normally, vice-presidential nominees don't end up swinging the outcome of a presidential race, political scientists like to say. It's the top of the ticket that nearly all voters base their decisions on. But this is a year in which a running mate – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the No. 2 to GOP nominee John McCain – could make a difference.

She has burst onto the national stage with such force, casting Senator McCain in a whole new light, that most engaged voters can't help but have an opinion.

The question is, does Governor Palin help or hurt McCain's chances? After her big speech Wednesday night at the Republican convention here, in which she delivered sharp rhetoric against the Democratic ticket and her critics and extolled her own virtues as a small-town, small-state executive and hockey mom, there was no doubt party regulars were enthralled.

"I pity Biden," says Coy Morton, an alternate delegate from Charlotte, Mich., speaking of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Joseph Biden. "She's going to tear him up."

Mr. Morton, a retired crane operator, was worried that his party had been inching to the left – and that even if conservatives would still vote for McCain, they would not volunteer for him. But no more.

"I'm a leader in my township, and we now have boots on the ground we didn't have before," says Morton. "All the gals, right-to-life, home-schoolers, were going to vote for McCain, but they weren't going to work for him. Now they're going to work for him."

But for all the conservative faithful who were thrilled with Palin's address, at least one moderate in the hall wasn't so sure.

"Right now, I'm not really liking the direction the party is going in," says Ben Abrams, a senior at the University of Minnesota who attended the convention as a guest. "I caucused for McCain, after [Rudolph] Giuliani dropped out of the race. I viewed him as more of a moderate, but now I see him pandering to the right wing."

As for independent voters and the overall shape of the race, it will take several days of polling for the full effect of Palin's speech, and McCain's Thursday night, to show any impact.

But one thing is certain: Palin's speech will be discussed for days and weeks to come. In the five days between McCain's introduction of her as his running mate and her return to public view, she ran a gauntlet of media scrutiny. Her record as governor and, before that, mayor of small-town Wasilla, Alaska, have been probed – and are still being examined. Her teenage daughter's out-of-wedlock pregnancy, announced just days after Palin's selection, heightened scrutiny of McCain's vetting process. Her large family, including a baby diagnosed with Down syndrome, sparked a national discussion about working mothers.

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.

"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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