Page last updated at 06:52 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 07:52 UK

Republican joy as Palin hits back

By Adam Brookes
BBC News, St Paul

Republicans have a new heroine - for now at least.

Sarah Palin buttons for sale at the Republican National Convention
Sarah Palin wins convention hearts but how will she fare nationwide?

Sarah Palin burst onto the national stage tonight, delighted the Republican convention in St Paul and - perhaps - reassured those Republican doubters who are quietly anxious over John McCain's choice of running mate.

Her political persona, as introduced here, is that of the down-to-earth outsider who is unafraid to confront entrenched political and economic elites. It's a familiar character in America's political folk tale. But Sarah Palin played it to a tee.

She spoke of how, as the new governor of Alaska, she cut spending, putting the governor's executive jet up for sale on Ebay, and sacking her personal chef. She said she would shake up the special interests that dominated Washington.

'Actual responsibilities'

On Barack Obama she was unsparing - a taste of things to come, and perhaps of her role in this campaign.

She pointed to her early political experience as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and took a swipe at Obama's past.

"I was mayor of my hometown," 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 organiser,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

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
Sarah Palin

There was a quick, and slightly awkward, tour of energy policy with a leavening of foreign threats to America's energy supplies - Iran, Venezuela et al - thrown in. The message: yes, she can cope with foreign and national security policy.

Notably absent from the speech was any mention of the unpopular President Bush.

Absent, too, was anything other than a passing reference to her own socially conservative beliefs - her opposition to abortion and gay marriage, her passionate support for gun rights.

'Sexism shame'

This was an un-dogmatic, accessible Sarah Palin - the conservatism hovering in the background, visible in the presence of her Downs syndrome child, the child she insisted on having despite her knowledge of his disability.

Sarah Palin spoke of how proud she was to serve

And it was perhaps her family that will have won the hearts of Republicans - her husband, Todd, a fisherman and oil worker, her soldier son, her three daughters, one of whom is pregnant at age 17, - the baby, all looking a little stunned at finding themselves on stage, under a national spotlight, the deafening applause ringing in their ears.

They appeared authentic in this most scripted of events. And Sarah Palin insists she is authentic, the real deal, an "ordinary" American populist.

To her detractors, especially those in the media, she was scathing.

"Here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators," she said, "I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion - I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country."

Earlier in the day, the Republicans had fielded five women, among them Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett Packard and senior McCain adviser, to savage the media for sexism in their reporting of Governor Palin.

"What we have is the media that outrageously has said things about her that they would never dare to say about a man," said Rosario Marin, the former US Treasurer. "I am outraged. I am insultedů Shame on them. Shame on all of them."

Unanswered questions

Some of the coverage of Sarah Palin has indeed been very snide, particularly in the liberal blogs. But there was a contrived feel to the news conference, as if the participants sought to generate a sense of grievance among Republican voters, and were using inflated charges of sexism to do it.

After all, we really don't know much about Sarah Palin. Simply lay out the less prurient questions swirling in the media about her, and you still have quite a list:

  • Has she travelled outside the United States at all - other than an official trip to the Middle East last year?
  • Does she have any appreciation of foreign or national security policy? Or any personal vision of the uses of American power?
  • Did she improperly use her position as governor of Alaska to force the sacking of a senior state official for personal reasons? An investigation is under way in the Alaska legislature, and Governor Palin has retained a lawyer
  • Was she a member of the Alaska Independence Party - a fringe group advocating secession from the United States - in the 1990s? The AIP says yes; her campaign says no
  • Was she a supporter of the conservative Pat Buchanan, the one-time presidential candidate whose political star declined, especially among Jewish voters, after he was accused of anti-Semitism?
  • What is her attitude to "pork" - the practice of lobbying for federal dollars from Washington to fund local projects and keep local supporters happy? She says she fought pork aggressively. Newspaper reports suggest she was adept at securing federal money when she was mayor of the town of Wasilla
  • Does she really support the idea of teaching creationism - the belief that God created the world in six days, as stated in the Bible - in schools?
  • What is her view of the causes of climate change?
  • Did she oppose sex education in schools? Some commentators have noted a possible irony if she did, given her own pregnant teenage daughter.

Help or hindrance?

Tonight's speech laid to rest none of these questions. One wouldn't expect it to. But they'll have to get answered at some point.

Sarah Palin addresses the Republican Natinal Convention
Next test: Head-to-head with her opponents

The speech did introduce to Americans a candidate who will campaign on the ordinariness of her origins, the extraordinariness of her achievements, and on the personality of a pugnacious outsider.

Her strongest suit is that she is appealing to conservative Republicans - a link to one wing of the party that has always been leery of John McCain - and she's intriguing to all Republicans.

Will this persona endure the campaign? Expect her to flourish on the trail - especially in small-scale settings, the diners, the fairs, the town hall meetings.

But when the media start conducting one-on-one interviews with her, and when she steps onto the stage to debate the Democrats' candidate for vice-president, Joe Biden, then we'll see if she's truly a help or a hindrance to John McCain.

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