ST. PAUL, Minn. — Democrats better start worrying about Sarah Palin.
In the most anticipated vice presidential speech in modern political history, John McCain's running mate introduced herself to America Wednesday night as a potent antidote to status quo Washington and as someone who looks as much like change as Barack Obama.
It was a make or break speech for the 44-year-old Alaska governor who was plucked from obscurity only five days earlier and is now at the center of a maelstrom of questions about who she really is and how she got here.
The governor of a state with fewer residents than Pinellas or Hillsborough counties may not have fully cleared the heartbeat-away-from-the-presidency threshold Wednesday, but she showed a confidence, polish and feistiness that should ease the anxiety many McCain allies had about his vice presidential choice. And she showed that she's more than willing to play the role of attack dog.
"Well, I'm not a member of the permanent political establishment. 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,'' she told tens of thousands of ecstatic fans in the Xcel Energy Center and millions of television viewers.
"But here's a little news flash for all 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 country."
Palin looked thoroughly comfortable in her first nationally televised speech, and the crowd loved every word. In fact, mingling among the 45,000 Republicans gathered in the Twin Cities for the convention this week one hears a lot more enthusiasm for Palin than for the man at the top of the ticket, who gives his acceptance speech tonight.
"She really has energized this party and unified us,'' said Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, an enthusiastic McCain supporter.
Energizing Republicans is not enough, though. Moderate swing voters will decide the election, and it's not yet clear how effectively an ardent social conservative who once sought to ban library books and wants to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape and incest will help McCain appeal to those voters.
The third night of the national convention was more about red meat partisan speeches from former presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani than courting the moderate middle. Amid signs like "Build the Fence" and chants of "Drill, baby, drill!" speakers touted conservatism and ridiculed Obama's resume. There was little talk about the economy.
"He's never run a city, never run a state, never run a business,'' Giuliani said. "He's never had to lead people in crisis. This is not a personal attack, it's a statement of fact — Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada."
In her strong national debut Wednesday night, Palin downplayed social issues and stressed her own biography as a small town outsider. She talked about her credentials as a reformer who challenged corrupt leaders in her own party.
"I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better. When I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too,'' said Palin who went on to become mayor of Wasilla, a town of roughly 6,500 residents.
Vice presidents are expected to hit hard at the rival nominee, and Palin cheerfully took caustic swipes at Obama.
"Listening to him speak, it's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform — not even in the state Senate,'' said Palin, while her husband and five children watched. "This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word 'victory' except when he's talking about his own campaign."
The speech was a lot more about her, McCain and Obama than policy, though she did take time to scoff at Obama's resistance to offshore drilling.
"Our opponents say, again and again, that drilling will not solve all of America's energy problems — as if we all didn't know that already. But the fact that drilling won't solve every problem is no excuse to do nothing at all,'' she said. "Starting in January, in a McCain-Palin administration, we're going to lay more pipelines, build more nuclear plants, create jobs with clean coal and move forward on solar, wind, geothermal and other alternative sources."
McCain briefly appeared on stage after the speech, joining Palin's husband and five children. Also there was the boyfriend of the Palins' 17-year-old daughter, who recently announced that she's pregnant. McCain spoke of the "beautiful family," but then never really addressed the cheering crowd before music filled the air.
Even with her strong debut, Palin still faces huge tests in the coming weeks. She will be under a national microscope about her record and her knowledge of national and international issues, which she barely touched on in her speech.
But that didn't seem to bother the crowd.
"I think she knocked it out of the park" said Linda Ivell, 53, a Florida delegate from Lakeland. "That was a no B.S. speech."
Vice presidential picks don't decide elections, but the questions about Palin may resonate stronger because at 72, McCain would be the oldest candidate ever elected to a first term as president.
America will learn a lot more about Sarah Palin, but she introduced herself Wednesday as someone who should not be underestimated.
Times staff writers Wes Allison and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241.