The 44-year-old governor and surprise pick to be McCain’s running mate has been under the spotlight over the past couple of days after disclosures that she faces an ethics investigation and that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. For an America that knew little of her, the speech on the third day of the Republican National Convention offered a chance to shift the focus other matters.
But questions have arisen about her efforts as mayor of the small town of Wasilla, Alaska, to gain millions of dollars in federal funding — which appears to be at odds with the McCain message of fiscal reform and raised criticism that McCain’s campaign had not fully explored her background.
To that end, the campaign called on the media to desist on its attacks, with senior campaign adviser Steve Schmidt decried what he called a “faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee” for vice president.
“This nonsense is over,” Schmidt declared in a written statement.
Meanwhile, McCain, who has seen his nominating convention upstaged by Hurricane Gustav, arrived Wednesday in St. Paul, Minnesota, his first appearance in the convention city since the event began on Monday.
He was met by Palin, among others, and shared a hug with his running mate, greeted her daughter, Bristol, and her boyfriend, 18-year-old Levi Johnston. Bristol Palin is five months pregnant and plans to marry her boyfriend, the family says.
McCain hugged Bristol Palin twice and kissed Sarah Palin’s 4-month-old son, Trig.
Members of McCain’s family and Palin’s family boarded a campaign bus on the runway and headed into town.
Interest in the speech is building as details of her background mount, and most Americans have hardly heard her voice. Her candidacy has excited conservative Republicans, in part because she has earned a reputation for taking on corruption and is staunchly pro-gun and anti-abortion. But others criticize her for her lack of any experience on the national stage, especially in matters of national security and foreign affairs.
Earlier, in preparation for her speech, Palin took an early morning tour of the stage at the convention hall in St. Paul, Minnesota, and stood at the lectern where she will address the nation for the first time.
Palin walked onto the spare stage at the Xcel Center for a brief run-through and spent about 10 minutes looking across the nearly empty arena. She was accompanied by top McCain officials.
“Give her a chance to make her first speech, give her a chance to do her first interview,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the convention’s keynote speaker, urged.
“Of course it’s going to be high stakes,” Giuliani said in an interview Wednesday with “Good Morning America” on ABC. “The media is ready to pounce on any mistake. … She looks to me like she’s got tremendous confidence, got tremendous ability as a speaker.”
A McCain aide said Palin would focus in her speech on her efforts to stand up to special interests in Alaska.
“She will speak as a governor, a former mayor and someone with both hands on the steering wheel of America’s energy economy,” said Tucker Eskew, a senior McCain adviser.
Wednesday night’s speakers also include a trio of former McCain rivals, now supporters: Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani. “We are getting a little more political tonight,” Davis said in a hint of the partisan barbs being sharpened for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
The convention returned, mostly, to normal Tuesday after its opening session was cut short as Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf Coast. With damage from Gustav relatively light, the political speeches began extolling McCain as a war hero and political maverick, with President George W. Bush declaring on a video screen from Washington that the veteran lawmaker is “ready to lead this nation.”
The president’s eight-minute address marked a significantly diminished role from earlier plans to have the president address the convention Monday night in the prestigious final slot. With polls making it clear Americans wants change, the McCain campaign indicated there was no reason for Bush to make the trip to St. Paul.
By contrast, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket that lost to Bush by a razor-thin margin eight years ago, closed out the convention’s second day and was granted far more time than Bush. He blended praise for McCain’s advocacy of the 2007 troop increase in Iraq with criticism of Obama’s opposition to it.
“When others wanted to retreat in defeat from the field of battle, when Barack Obama was voting to cut off funding for our troops on the ground, John McCain had the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion,” Lieberman said.
A larger-than-life image of Bush speaking from the White House was seen on the convention floor, projected in a way that made it appear as if Bush actually was onstage.
The president was introduced for his remote address by first lady Laura Bush, who told cheering delegates that her husband had kept the country safe in the nearly seven years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Bush told delegates he could not be there in person because he was needed in Washington to oversee relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav.
In his remarks, Bush reprised the national security themes that propelled him to re-election in 2004.
“We need a president who understands the lessons of September 11, 2001: That to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen, and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain.”
Republicans hoped a strong convention would help McCain offset the boost Obama received from last week’s Democratic convention in Denver. A Gallup Poll tracking survey released Tuesday showed Obama with a 50 percent to 42 percent lead. The race had been almost even before the conventions.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson delivered a particularly sharp defense of the 44-year-old Palin. She is “from a small town, with small town values, but that’s not good enough for those folks who are attacking her and her family,” he told the delegates
There were indications that Republicans thought they could turn the Palin-related controversy to McCain’s gain. Officials said Levi Johnston, 18-year-old father of the baby Bristol Palin is expecting, had traveled to the convention from his home in Alaska.