The biggest moment Thursday night in the Xcel Center—the time and place of John McCain’s acceptance speech—was when the lights went down and the jumbo screens lit up with a video about … Sarah Palin. Her face flashed on-screen, and I almost reached for my earplugs. During McCain’s speech later on, I reached for my hearing aid.
For whatever reason, McCain had trouble jazzing the crowd. Maybe it was his tendency to speak over the cheering rather than wait for it to build and subside. Even 10 minutes into his speech—around the point at which Palin got comfortable Wednesday night—McCain still wasn’t hitting his rhythm. I squinted to make sure it wasn’t still Tom Ridge onstage.
It could also be that McCain’s speech was predictable—heavily biographical with an emphasis on his "maverick" streak and his service to country—whereas Palin’s was 100 percent fresh. McCain’s policy solutions sounded laundry list-y. Parts of the speech felt soporific by design. Even the weakest speeches repackage platitudes in ways we haven’t heard them before. But he pledged to "stand on your side" twice and urged people eight times to "stand up." He promised to "fight" for various things 25 times. What hope and change are to Obama, stand and fight are to McCain.
The tepid reaction to McCain (save the dutiful screaming at the end) may have had a lot to do enthusiasm for Palin. Republicans are now going through post-Palin depression. Her speech on Wednesday combined clever attacks on Obama with warm-and-fuzzy biography and the sort of red-meat conservative rallying cries that convention-goers devour. Granted, expectations were low. But she exceeded them with such style and confidence that it made McCain look stiff by comparison. It’s no coincidence that two of McCain’s biggest applause lines were his mentions of Palin.
Of course, novelty and news value play a part, too. McCain’s surprise pick delighted conservatives otherwise ticked off by McCain’s unorthodoxy on immigration and campaign finance. Others glommed onto her family story. (Republicans here are psyched about Bristol’s baby.) And she injected the ticket with much-needed energy, plus a dose of sympathy .
No doubt McCain’s camp is breathing a sigh of relief at Palin’s popularity. While concerns about her maverick credentials remain, few still describe her as a "gamble" anymore. What no one anticipated is that she might overshadow McCain himself.