ST. PAUL, Minn. --
The war over Gov. Sarah Palin's image is on. (And Team McCain can only hope that it's not already lost.)
What the McCain campaign realizes is that there are two Republican National Conventions now underway -- one in St. Paul, and one back home.
In the first, inside the hall, they feel good about being Republicans again. The party's stars are cycling through (where was this Fred Thompson last year?), the nominee has delegates' (and -- thanks, Joe Lieberman -- one big Democrat's) blessing, and there's this new young partner who's got everyone buzzing.
But -- as clear as that giant, high-definition American flag rippling behind the podium -- none of that may matter over in that other convention that's playing out in the press reports that seep into American homes.
Certainly not if the running mate doesn't impress Wednesday (and probably not if the McCain-Palin operation can't control the media firestorm before she takes the stage).
The broad issue this Wednesday: The campaign is perilously close to losing control of Palin's image -- and thus the stakes are raised for a speech that was going to be the most closely watched of the convention anyway.
"Core conservatives are smitten with the 44-year-old governor, who opposes abortion in all cases, including rape and incest. And millions of dollars in donations have poured in," Peter Wallsten and Doyle McManus write in the Los Angeles Times. "But Republican strategists don't know how she will play among moderate swing voters, including blue-collar Democrats, who have been moving toward Barack Obama but might like Palin's middle-class roots."
Said former Bush adviser Dan Bartlett: "There's no middle ground on this for John McCain. . . . She is either going to be a wild success or a spectacular failure."
"It's going to be a wild ride," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., tells USA Today.
Here comes the pushback: Team McCain plays the gender card and the media-bias card with a full-on offensive -- press conferences, surrogate TV and radio appearances (designed to demand fair treatment for Palin and her family), plus a new ad:
"The McCain campaign will launch a television ad directly comparing Governor Palin's executive experience as a governor who oversees 24,000 state employees, 14 statewide cabinet agencies and a 10 billion dollar budget to Barack Obama's experience as a one-term junior Senator from Illinois," a campaign aide tells The Note.
As for McCain himself: After landing in Minneapolis around noon CT, he sits down with ABC's Charles Gibson Wednesday in St. Paul -- his only pre-acceptance-speech interview in the convention city. (Watch for portions starting with "World News" Wednesday.)
Palin, R-Alaska, will be the featured prime-time speaker in day three of a convention that didn't really start until day two. (She did her walk-through early Wednesday -- in time to get some face time on the morning shows. She answered a quick question from ABC's Ann Compton, saying: "I'm excited to get to speak to Americans. This will be good. It's about reform.")