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Palin's 40-minute speech wins thundering ovations

ST. PAUL -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, accepting the GOP nomination for vice president Wednesday night, sought to silence critics and strike an accord with American voters in one of the most anticipated speeches in the race for the White House.

Unknown even to many Republicans a week ago, Palin wrapped a personal profile and philosophical pitch into a 40-minute talk that brought thundering ovations from delegates at the Republican National Convention.

"I accept the challenge of a tough fight in this election," she said. "And I accept the privilege of serving with a man who has come through much harder missions, and met far graver challenges, and knows how tough fights are won - the next president of the United States -- John S. McCain."

McCain thrilled the convention with a surprise appearance on stage after Palin's speech.

"Don't you think we made the right choice?" he asked, as the crowd roared with approval.

Palin, 44, took a non-too-subtle swipe at Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, whose resume includes a stint as a community organizer in a public housing project on Chicago's South Side in the mid-1980s.

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities," said Palin, who was mayor of Wasilla from 1996 to 2002. The Alaskan town had 5,469 residents, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

"She's got charm," said Republican Charles Krohn, 57, of Bridgeville, sitting among an estimated crowd of 45,000 delegates, alternate delegates, volunteers, guests and members of the media packed into Xcel Energy Center for Palin's acceptance speech.

"I think she's going to do great," he added.

Palin -- speaking beneath thousands of red, white and blue balloons suspended high above the arena -- hammered "some in the media" she said portrayed her as unqualified for vice president for not being "a member in good standing of the Washington elite."

"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."

She pledged a McCain-Palin administration would invest in nuclear power plants, "clean" coal technology, and alternative energy sources including solar, wind and geothermal.

"We need American energy resources brought to you by American ingenuity and produced by American workers," Palin said before an audience that intermittently chanted, "Sarah, Sarah, Sarah," waved signs with the message "COUNTRY FIRST," and swirled yellow Terrible Towels in a section with Pennsylvania delegates.

The full impact of Palin's speech may not be known until polls track whether McCain gets a "bump" from the convention that helps him gain ground against Obama, who leads in recent polls.

But several immediate responses were positive.

"She was confident, articulate and strong. And she seemed folksy and real. So she's passed the style test. The next test will be on substance," said Democratic analyst Steve McMahon.

G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College who watched the speech from inside the convention, gave Palin high marks for being "resolute, tough and fearless."

"This more than meets the expectations of the Republican delegates," Madonna said. "Inside this hall, this plays amazingly well. What we don't know is how it's going to play out in America."

The convention culminates tonight with McCain's acceptance speech, but the show might have climaxed already.

Hurricane Gustav overshadowed the convention's first day, when the party canceled most political events. The political storm surrounding McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate consumed the second and third days.

Today presents McCain with a chance to take back what was supposed to be his convention.

"Far more attention is being paid to the vice presidential nominee than to McCain," said John Baick, associate professor of history at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.

The potential to have the first woman vice president forces Democrats to share history's stage with the Republicans, but some say the first-term Alaska governor undercuts McCain's claim as the more experienced choice for voters. McCain calls Palin a compatriot in a crusade against government waste, but news reports this week showed she sought millions in federal grants for her small hometown.

She highlights her history of taking on Alaska's corruption-tinged Republican establishment, but has hired a lawyer in an investigation into whether she fired Alaska's public safety commissioner because he wouldn't fire her sister's ex-husband.

McCain's campaign has responded -- sometimes angrily -- by blaming Democrats and the news media for a smear campaign.

The Arizona senator's challenge is to pivot, and maybe throw a few elbows.

"He's got to somehow bring this back to being on offense," said Penni Pier, a political communications professor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. "If he sets himself up in a position of playing defense, he's going to be stuck there," possibly until voters go to the polls in November.

McCain won't have to devote much of his speech to appealing to a conservative GOP base that was wary of him. Picking the staunchly pro-life, pro-gun Palin placated them.

"She has brought an unforeseen energy to this ticket," said former Virginia governor and U.S. senator George Allen. "What John has to do is take that forward in his speech by outlining the things that are important -- winning the war, keeping taxes low, and emphasize a new energy plan that keeps prices down and takes away foreign dependence."

To appeal to independent voters, but still keep conservatives happy, McCain likely will use "key words" that resonate with both groups in different ways, Baick said.

"Like 'character,' " Baick said. "When they hear 'character' from her, that means someone who will support pro-life causes and creationism. When he says 'character,' that means he will take the fight to the enemy and never stop. They'll use some of the same talking points."

People likely will compare his speech tonight with rival Obama's acceptance speech a week ago. Obama, the first black major-party nominee, gave a speech in a packed football stadium that was seen by more than 38 million people on television -- and it was on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s landmark "I Have a Dream" speech.

"It's about the horse race," Pier said. "It's about comparing the two candidates, so I think comparisons (of the speeches) are inevitable."

David M. Brown can be reached at or 412-380-5614. Salena Zito can be reached at . Mike Wereschagin can be reached at or 412-320-7900.

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