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Palin’s Speech Dazzles GOP Faithful, Sets Stage for Campaign Trail

September 4, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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After a look at reaction to vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin's speech to the GOP convention Wednesday, a panel of analysts, lawmakers and columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks, offer insight on Palin's impact on the event.

JIM LEHRER: Now, reaction to last night’s appearance by vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro was out today talking to delegates about her speech.

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), Alaska: I will be honored to accept your nomination for vice president of the United States.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, NewsHour Correspondent: Republicans here in St. Paul lauded their nominee for vice president today, after her rousing speech.

ROSE ANN GAETANO, Pennsylvania Delegate: I just think her speech last night was a grand slam. She hit that ball all the way to Alaska.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: We spoke to delegates from different states today, like Paula Oullette from Rhode Island. They were impressed.

PAULA OULLETTE, Rhode Island Delegate: She just reinforced to me how dynamic she is, how genuine. And she’s just like one of the normal citizens of the United States, trying to make changes, and I think it really came across last night.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Palin used last night’s speech to highlight her running mate’s credentials…

GOV. SARAH PALIN: Our nominee for president is a true profile in courage, and people like that are hard to come by.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: … and put down the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama’s, early experience.

GOV. SARAH PALIN: I was mayor of my hometown. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ken Leonard is a delegate from Texas.

KEN LEONARD, Texas Delegate: She has worlds of executive experience compared to the other side of the ticket, which has zero executive experience.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So you thought she handled it effectively in making her case versus Obama and versus Biden?

KEN LEONARD: Absolutely.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Most of the speakers last night took a swipe at the media. Palin was no exception.

GOV. SARAH PALIN: Here’s a little newsflash for 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 great country.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That moment brought the largest applause and boos directed at the media on the floor from the crowd of more than 20,000, after a week of intense media scrutiny of their candidate.

Vicki Slaton is from Texas.

VICKI SLATON, Texas Delegate: I think Republicans think they have to prove themselves over and over and over. And the Democrats can kind of — the media just passes them. They go, “Oh, they did this last week, but it’s over with, so we don’t talk about that anymore.”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: State Sen. Bob Robbins is a delegate from Greenville, Pennsylvania.

STATE SENATOR BOB ROBBINS, Pennsylvania Delegate: I agree with her totally that major media has not been fair across the board, and we accept that. We understand, and we have to work with that in knowledge. And then you have to do a good job, and you hope the voters back home, that they get the message and they understand.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Her experience in an energy-rich state resonated with Texan Larry Jeffus.

LARRY JEFFUS, Texas Delegate: She talked about energy policy. She talked about the environment. She talked about bringing the nation together. Those were things that I was impressed with.

One of the concerns I’ve had for a long time, when we talk about energy policy, is that, in the North Slope, we have a phenomenal resource. We see it as an asset. And our other opponents see it as an environmental issue.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many delegates knew little about their vice presidential candidate before she was introduced. We talked to Dennis Tippets of Wyoming yesterday.

DENNIS TIPPETS, Wyoming Delegate: She’s got to convince a lot of people that she can muster up to the job.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She hasn’t convinced you yet?

DENNIS TIPPETS: Not completely. I’m looking forward to seeing what she has to say tonight.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today, we caught up with him in the Mall of America to get his report card.

DENNIS TIPPETS: I was impressed. I thought the governor, she started a little slow, but she seemed to really work into it. And, of course, the crowd got involved in it. And towards the end, I would say she had them right in the palm of her hand.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The delegates say they are ready to campaign hard for the ticket over the next two months.

Palin's character revealed

Michael Gerson
Former Presidential Speechwriter
The amazing thing, of course, was for someone who's only been on the national stage for, really, 20 minutes, she performed like she's been on the stage for 20 years.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill takes the Palin story from there.

GWEN IFILL: And joining me to put Sarah Palin's head-turning speech in a larger political context are Linda Lingle, the governor of Hawaii, who introduced Palin last night, Michael Gerson, who was chief speechwriter for President Bush, and Barbara Comstock, who served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney during his presidential campaign.

Governor Lingle, you were on that stage last night introducing Sarah Palin. You saw what that crowd felt like, what they were expecting. Did she deliver it?

GOV. LINDA LINGLE (R), Hawaii: I think she delivered over the top, Gwen. And I was glad for her, because I had spent the previous two days telling all the media who asked me, as well as speaking to the delegates, "Just wait until you meet her, because, when you do, you're going to find what all of us have who have gotten to know her."

She's a very down-to-earth person, but a very impressive person. She's very bright on policy issues, and yet she can make anyone feel at ease. And I think that's what came across last night.

GWEN IFILL: Mike Gerson, as a speechwriter by trade, as someone who works in this kind of witchcraft, tell us how -- deconstruct that speech for us, what it had to deliver and what it did deliver and how.

MICHAEL GERSON, Former Bush Speechwriter: Well, there are two elements. I mean, the speech itself, which was very skillfully constructed. Applause lines were interesting and varied.

There was, you know, a tough humor in the speech, which is a hard thing to pull off. I don't think Barack Obama pulled that off, by the way. Most of his attacks were sort of outraged and angry attacks. Her attacks last night had this edge of humor that caused more laughs than boos and jeers in the audience. I think it served her well.

But the amazing thing, of course, was for someone who's only been on the national stage for, really, 20 minutes, she performed like she's been on the stage for 20 years.

You know, the way that she delivered the speech, the way that she kind of laid into lines, which was very Reagan-like, it was pretty extraordinary. It showed a natural political talent.

And I think we must have seen what John McCain saw when he first met with her that was hard to tell from just reading the articles. And that's what a good speech does. It reveals the character of the person giving it.

Emphasizing biography

Barbara Comstock
Republican Strategist
I was sitting in a box that had some Hillary supporters. They were excited about it. I think because of that real life, that authenticity, she really spoke to a lot of people.

GWEN IFILL: And, Barbara Comstock, your old boss had a turn on stage last night, which people forget, actually, because Sarah Palin overshadowed Mitt Romney and everybody else, almost, so much.

But I was struck by the number of references in her speech to her role as a mother rather than as an executive, even though her executive experience is what so many people have been discussing. And her role as a mother is what people have said we in the media are guilty of a double standard by bringing up, yet she brought it up a lot.

BARBARA COMSTOCK, Republican Strategist: Well, I think it was a way of her telling her story that, as a mother, she became involved first in her community on the city council. She ran because she didn't like how certain things were done. And then she saw, "Maybe I need to take charge of this," and she ran against a sitting mayor, took charge of that, then served on a commission after that and advanced in that way.

So this was somebody who really -- to borrow a Barack Obama phrase -- the improbable journey. You know, she did start out as somebody who just wanted -- she was a doer. You know, if you want something done, ask a busy woman.

This was her story, and I think that's why she was so real, that this idea that you start out sort of fighting city hall, and then you get involved sort of, you know, like Erin Brockovich or one of these Hollywood characters where all of a sudden you're in the middle of a scandal, and you have to go up against people in your own party, and go out and strike out against everyone, which is a pretty improbable thing for somebody to do, and then run against a sitting Republican governor.

That's a fabulous story. And what it does, I think, as Mike pointed out, it shows you what McCain saw in her, which I think is that doubling down on the reformer, maverick spirit, and somebody who is wanting to get something done.

She didn't run for office to be somebody. She wouldn't have been probably out in Alaska. She might have moved to a more politically -- you know, state that, you know, produces presidents or historically.

And so it's really -- I got calls today from family members who are not necessarily Republicans last night. I was sitting in a box that had some Hillary supporters. They were excited about it. I think because of that real life, that authenticity, she really spoke to a lot of people.

And I was particularly happy to see that people like Linda Lingle, Governor Lingle, and Meg Whitman, and Carly Fiorina, had also gave an opportunity for us to feature those women, who also are accomplished doers, just, you know, the "get-'er-done" types who relate to the Cable Guy all the way over to, you know, sophisticated small-business people.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Governor Lingle about that, because alone among us at this table, you've actually gone out there and run for office. And I wonder, if you watch something like this and think that it's more important or as important, especially for a woman candidate, to emphasize the biographical part of her history over maybe the policy part?

GOV. LINDA LINGLE: I don't think it's more important. It's certainly important for any politician. People need to know, who are you as a person? Because then they can determine how you might vote on a certain issue or what position you might take, because no one knows what issues will come up.

So what they're really doing is voting for a person. Do they trust you? Do they share your values? And I'll tell you, one thing she talked about last night, Gwen, that has touched people all across this country -- and it's something, I think, that was a little unexpected -- she said to the parents of children of special needs, she said, "You will have an advocate in the White House." These are people who are desperate to have advocates for their children.

And I was speaking with a delegate from Oklahoma today who was involved in her state in raising money for a respite home to help parents of special-needs children. They said their phones are ringing off the hook at home from people who want to donate now.

So I think that was a little unexpected. And you maybe haven't seen it bubble up yet, but this is going to be a group, millions of parents out in the country and their children, who are going to respond to Sarah Palin.

John McCain's perspective

Gov. Linda Lingle
I think last night many people were waiting for Sarah Palin to fall. And when she did the opposite and hit it out of the park, everyone was excited about that.

GWEN IFILL: Mike Gerson, how important is it that we hear from the unscripted Sarah Palin? And how soon?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, you know, this is a series of hurdles for a vice presidential nominee. She jumped over the first hurdle, I think, very effectively.

But she will now need to prepare -- and it's not too many weeks away -- for the vice presidential debate and for interaction with the media, I think, before that debate.

I think it's going to be important for her to do that to kind of let the air out of the balloon of these demands on the part of the media for unrestricted access to her. She needs some time to get up on things.

Clearly, she's a quick study. That's what people say about her. But there's a lot to learn before you go on "Meet the Press" or before you go -- you know, do a vice presidential debate.

GWEN IFILL: Just say the NewsHour.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right, exactly. Yes, well, that's a better one.

BARBARA COMSTOCK: Gwen Ifill in the vice presidential debate.

MICHAEL GERSON: Exactly. Well, the vice presidential debate. And it's -- that's a learning process for somebody who doesn't have that background.

And that's true of every governor, by the way, true of Ronald Reagan, true of Bill Clinton, true of Bush. You know, you don't have a foreign policy in these states and you have to get up on these things.

GWEN IFILL: You know, as Jim said, there was a big, big audience last night for -- a lot of curiosity for Sarah Palin and for that speech. How important is it, however, in the long run, in the campaign where things seem to change day by day that the vice president be the one who nails this?

Tonight we're going to hear from John McCain. Is he going to be overshadowed by his own vice president, Linda Lingle?

GOV. LINDA LINGLE: I don't think so. I think last night many people were waiting for Sarah Palin to fall. And when she did the opposite and hit it out of the park, everyone was excited about that. That's understandable.

With Senator McCain, everyone knows that his greatest strength is not his rhetorical ability to bring a stadium to its feet. That's just simply not John McCain. I think that's why you're seeing the change of staging tonight, so he can have a more intimate setting, even though we're in an arena.

John McCain does not have to worry about being overshadowed, but I know that he's excited that Sarah did so well last night.

GWEN IFILL: Barbara Comstock?

BARBARA COMSTOCK: Well, I think the enthusiasm level - well you just saw John McCain really since last Friday, when he came out and announced her. This is something that John McCain very much owns, and he put together this team.

And I think there is a great chemistry there. And, really, from the standpoint of the vice presidential candidate, there are three days that are really important, that unveiling, you know, when we saw like a Dan Quayle situation, the unveiling wasn't good. She did fabulous last week.

You know, last night was the second one. Then, the debates do tend to be the third. And so I do think she's 2 for 2 now, and it gives a great -- she really set that kitchen table and laid it all out there, and now John McCain can go out and talk about it tonight.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think John McCain has a bigger burden in a certain way. If you're a reformer, you have to propose reforms. You have to have substance to this agenda.

She didn't need to do that last night. She needed to be effective in what she did and attacking Barack Obama, which we won't see tonight. He needs to set out what this agenda means.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Thank you both, all three, Michael Gerson, Linda Lingle, and Barbara Comstock.

Back to you, Jim.

The 'big challenge' for McCain

David Brooks
The New York Times
This is a party sort of locked in the past with a bunch of old, white guys. She seemed a lot more normal for a modern American suburban person.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, thanks, Gwen.

And back to Mark and David for a moment.

David, where do you come down on the question of whether or not Sarah Palin's performance last night put to rest many of the Republican doubts about her as a running mate?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Many, at least so far. Maybe some disaster will happen. But what was striking about the speech was that it flowed from her natural experience.

It was not a traditional speech, in many ways. She didn't mention Ronald Reagan, which I thought was good, because the party is tied down by Reagan nostalgia. She barely mentioned the social issues.

So it was a bit of breath of fresh air. It was less it was less mega-church, more supermarket aisle.

And so, as Mike said, it's not -- she didn't suggest any future policies, but it was a bit of a future personality or maybe a present personality. This is a party sort of locked in the past with a bunch of old, white guys. She seemed a lot more normal for a modern American suburban person.

And so the personality shift, I think, was tremendously important to get somebody who seems au courant before the public, if I can use a French phrase at a Republican convention.

JIM LEHRER: Say something in French, Mark, just to see -- prove you can do it.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Merci, Monsieur David. C'est bon!

JIM LEHRER: Yes. I agree. But where do you come down on the idea, what it's done for stabilizing the ticket with Sarah Palin on it.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think -- I think, right now, the ticket is the ticket. I mean, there's no question about it. I mean, it's McCain-Palin, barring some act of God or man or press or whatever that we...

JIM LEHRER: Because it's more...


MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think there is a...

JIM LEHRER: From Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain was not comfortable on the stage last night. I mean, he just isn't -- he's awkward in those situations.

I mean, I was just contrasting him with the experience in Denver, where Obama, who has a natural grace to him, and it seemed easy with Joe Biden. I mean, John McCain was up there -- it was a great portrait. She was there with her family and the kids and all of whom are cute, and attractive and appealing, and -- but John just seemed like the guy who wandered in, you know, at the family picnic.

And so -- but, I mean, I don't think the comfort level -- John McCain has a challenge tonight, Jim, and it's a big challenge.