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.")
"The McCain campaign scrambled to take control of the public debate over vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin, canceling her public appearances and teaming her with high-powered Republican operatives as she prepared for a speech Wednesday night that will be her first, and perhaps most important, chance to define herself to the American public," per The Wall Street Journal.
"While vice-presidential candidates traditionally act as the chief attackers of the opponents, Gov. Palin's speech will focus on her personal narrative and legislative record, not on criticizing the Democratic ticket, said a senior McCain adviser," the Journal reports.
Interesting nugget: "The Xcel arena, the convention site, will be packed with 20,000 people. The largest indoor venue in Alaska holds about 8,000."
How she's playing on the supermarket aisles: "BABIES, LIES & SCANDAL," screams the headline on the cover of US Weekly.
Remember this: "Less than a week ago, Sarah Palin was a little-known rookie governor of a remote state, a working mother of five with an infant son, a woman whose life has been forged in the splendor and isolation of the Alaskan wild," Kevin Diaz writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
As for the McCain operation -- itself the story as questions turn to what aides knew and when about the drip-drip of Palin factoids -- these words will be the last words the campaign hopes to put out about whether everyone did their homework:
"This vetting controversy is a faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee for Vice President of the United States who has never been a part of the old boys' network that has come to dominate the news establishment in this country," McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt says in a statement going out Wednesday.
"Senator McCain picked his governing partner after a long and thorough search. Governor Palin looks forward to addressing the nation and laying out the fundamental choice this election represents for the American people," he continues. "The McCain campaign will have no further comment about our long and thorough process. This nonsense is over. . . . The American people get to do the vetting now on Election Day."
The prepping: "Sitting around a dining room table, the McCain team has talked to her about Iraq, energy and the economy, but has focused on what she should say in her speech, struggling almost as hard as she has to prepare for what will be, along with a debate in October, her main opportunity to shape the way she is viewed by voters," Juliet Eilperin and Robert Barnes write in The Washington Post.
"Not anticipating that McCain would choose a woman as his running mate, the speech that was prepared in advance was 'very masculine,' according to campaign manager Rick Davis, and 'we had to start from scratch,' " they write. "Aides to McCain and Palin were still debating elements of the speech, according to several GOP sources familiar with the process, including whether the governor should make reference to her 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy."
Says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: "She can do fine in foreign policy because of the infrastructure we have around us. She's smart and she will learn over time." (Umm -- maybe knowing this stuff might have been a prerequisite for being offered the job?)
Palin will follow former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y. -- sure to fire up the crowd even if we've heard this speech before. (Also possible Wednesday night: the former rivals -- who are former governors: Mitt Romney, R-Mass., and Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.)
They'll love her in St. Paul, and she gets one shot to turn it all (or most of it) around in that other, broader convention.
Either she wasn't fully vetted and the McCain folks are scrambling, or she was fully vetted and the rollout has been close to disastrous. Maybe the McCain campaign can chasten the media to back off, and maybe it can't.
If the scene wasn't wild enough before: "The boyfriend of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's unwed, pregnant daughter will join the family of the Republican vice presidential candidate at the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn.," per the Associated Press. "Levi Johnston's mother said her 18-year-old son left Alaska on Tuesday morning to join the Palin family at the convention where Sen. John McCain will officially receive the Republican nomination for president."
Add another twist: "Gov. Sarah Palin is already facing ethical questions over her firing of the Alaska public safety commissioner, and now she faces questions over the firing of a longtime local police chief," ABC's Brian Ross and Joseph Rhee report. "After taking over as Mayor of the small town of Wasilla, Palin fired the longtime local police chief. The former police chief, Irl Stambaugh says he was fired because he stepped on the toes of Palin's campaign contributors, including bar owners and the National Rifle Association."
And: "Wasilla had received few if any earmarks before Palin became mayor," Tom Hamburger, Richard Simon, and Janet Hook, write in the Los Angeles Times. "She actively sought federal funds -- a campaign that began to pay off only after she hired a lobbyist with close ties to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who long controlled federal spending as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He made funneling money to Alaska his hallmark."
Also: Palin "earlier this year used her line-item veto to slash funding for a state program benefiting teen mothers in need of a place to live," Paul Kane reports in The Washington Post.
Palin herself wasn't a member of the Alaska Independence Party -- but her husband was. "Palin's husband Todd was a member of the AIP from October 1995 through July 2002, except for a few months in 2000. He is currently undeclared," per ABC's Jake Tapper.
It all adds up to something: "She faces a barrage of revelations about her and questions about how carefully Republican presidential candidate John McCain vetted her before he stunned the political world -- and many of his own supporters -- Friday by naming her as his running mate," McClatchy's Steven Thomma reports.
But she may be a hit yet (and the storyline is primed for her to exceed expectations, at least): "She looks like a lot of people I know," Michael Moore tells The Hill's Bob Cusack. http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/filmmaker-michael-moore-americans-identify-with-palin-2008-09-02.html
Don't forget the base (and don't worry, Team McCain hasn't): "To make up for a history of conflict with the Christian conservative wing of his party, Mr. McCain has in some ways gone further than Mr. Bush to reassure the right of his intentions, even at the risk of spooking more moderate voters," David Kirkpatrick write in The New York Times.
Said Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention: "It was as if the whole Republican convention had started drinking Red Bull," with Palin on board.
Writes Robert Novak: "[McCain's] unexpected selection satisfied the people he needed to please. Republican conservatives assembling in St. Paul for the party's national convention were 'ecstatic' over the choice."
Writes Pat Buchanan, at Real Clear Politics: "By passing over his friends Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge, and picking Palin, McCain has given himself a fighting chance of winning the White House that, before Friday morning, seemed to be slipping away."
It's a party in search of a hero: Palin "was on nearly everyone's version of the up-and-comer list even before she was picked," USA Today's Ken Dilanian writes. "Her elevation to the national ticket means that if she performs well, she'll be a top prospect. If not, she could go the way of former vice president Dan Quayle, who is out of politics."
"The party now has a new national leader whose personal story resonates precisely with those Sam's Club Republicans," Gerald Seib writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "Regardless of how it plays out, the Palin pick was designed in part to reinforce the image of Republican presidential nominee John McCain as a maverick agent of change who is willing to shake up the party. . . . Those happen to be the same goals of reformers within the party who have been clamoring for an updated message."
"The culture wars are making a sudden and unexpected encore in American politics, turning more ferocious virtually by the hour as activists on both sides of the ideological divide react to the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket," Politico's Jim VandeHei and David Paul Kuhn report.
More on the pushback:
"Sen. John McCain's top campaign strategist accused the news media Tuesday of being 'on a mission to destroy' Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by displaying 'a level of viciousness and scurrilousness' in pursuing questions about her personal life," Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post.
"In an extraordinary and emotional interview, Steve Schmidt said his campaign feels 'under siege' by wave after wave of news inquiries that have questioned whether Palin is really the mother of a 4-month-old baby, whether her amniotic fluid had been tested and whether she would submit to a DNA test to establish the child's parentage," Kurtz writes. Said Schmidt: "We are being bombarded by e-mails and phone calls from journalists asking when she will be dropping out of the race."
"Sarah Palin represents everything they hate," said radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham, per ABC's Teddy Davis. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves," said conservative activist Gary Bauer.
Yet the storyline remains, about judgment as well as process.
"Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was not subjected to a lengthy in-person background interview with the head of Sen. John McCain's vice presidential vetting team until last Wednesday in Arizona, the day before McCain asked her to be his running mate, and she did not disclose the fact that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant until that meeting, two knowledgeable McCain officials acknowledged Tuesday," Dan Balz writes in a Washington Post front-pager.
"McCain officials said that questionnaire and the personal interview revealed three new facts previously unknown to the team: Palin's daughter's pregnancy, the arrest of her husband two decades ago for driving while intoxicated, and a fine Palin paid for fishing without proper identification," Balz writes.
(The other finalist was Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., Balz reports. And among Arthur Culvahouse's questions for Palin: "If the CIA were to report that Osama bin Laden had been identified in the frontiers of northern Pakistan, but that an attempt to kill him would result in civilian casualties, would the person authorize such an action? If Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean announced that he was holding a news conference with a mystery person to reveal damaging information about the candidate, who would they most fear it would be?")
(We look forward to those answers, governor.)
Jill Zuckman, in the Chicago Tribune: "None of the tidbits on Palin that have emerged so far appears to be too politically damaging. But taken together, they highlight the risk McCain took in the most important decision he's made as a candidate, a gamble that enhances his image as a freewheeling, independent figure who follows his own rules."
"The way McCain weighed and discarded vice presidential prospects over that time has come under scrutiny as the choice of Palin turns politically perilous. The question is whether McCain carefully vetted his selection and, if he did not, what that says about the judgment and decision-making the presumed Republican nominee would bring to the White House," Mark Z. Barabak and Maeve Reston write in the Los Angeles Times.
This couldn't be covered in any questionnaire: "John McCain's campaign hoped that the five days between the introduction of Sarah Palin as his running mate and her high-stakes speech tonight to the Republican National Convention would let it weave a narrative about the Alaska governor as a kindred maverick reformer who shares McCain's disdain for pork barrel projects and political corruption," The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish writes. "But almost from the moment of her unveiling, one report after another has deconstructed that story line."
Palin will "begin defining a political persona that contains far more questions than answers," Ken Fireman and Kristin Jensen write for Bloomberg News. "The rollout began last week with her portrayal as a down-to-earth reformer, veered into uncharted territory with the announcement that her teenage daughter was pregnant, and was burdened by questions about her 20-month tenure as governor."
Nobody really knows her -- not even the die-hards: "In part, the challenge for Palin will be in exuding confidence that she belongs on a national ticket even though most of the party insiders who are poised to cheer her nomination from inside a packed Xcel Energy Center tonight have not met her and knew little about her before Friday," CQ's Jonathan Allen writes.
Except in Wasilla: "As Palin prepares to accept the Republican nomination for vice president tonight, in a speech that will mark her sudden ascent to national fame, neighbors in her Alaskan town are responding with a mix of pride, amazement, and, in some cases, trepidation," Michael Levenson writes in The Boston Globe.
Says one fellow churchgoer: "She's more woman than Hillary and she's more man than Hillary."
It's important to get this end of things right: "I think this is clearly somebody in the McCain campaign who doesn't understand where the votes are coming from," conservative leader Phyllis Schlafly told ABC's Teddy Davis, after McCain folks abruptly canceled a scheduled Palin appearance. "They only told me this at 10 o'clock last night, and it was a call from somebody down-the-line in the McCain campaign. . . . The pro-lifers who paid $95 to come to this event because of Sarah Palin are going to be very unhappy."
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, in a quote that didn't come out the way he intended: "This election is not about issues," Davis said in a chat with Washington Post reporters and editors. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."
As for the business of the convention -- better late than never.
"President Bush turned over the reins of the Republican Party to John McCain on Tuesday night and then stepped aside as Mr. McCain's friends touted him as a maverick and teamed up to blast his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, as the least-qualified nominee ever," Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times.
"Bush's party not only welcomed McCain as its nominee, but embraced him -- and his heroic life story -- as its inspiration, committing itself to putting a fresh, nonpartisan gloss on a Capitol it has dominated for the last eight years," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.
Maybe it was better that the president wasn't in the room.
"On a night when Republicans gave top billing to other speakers, the president's physical distance from the gathering in St. Paul -- his huge image was beamed out over an empty lectern to a crowd in the arena that cheered mostly at mentions of Mr. McCain -- also underscored the gulf between the Bush camp and the McCain one," Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in The New York Times. "If the subplot of the Democratic convention in Denver was the lingering resentment between Mr. Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the undercurrent here is the longstanding tension between Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain, and Mr. McCain's efforts to distance himself politically from the man he hopes to succeed."
It may be Sen. Joe Lieberman's final break, and he made it count: "Tonight, I ask you whether you are an independent, a Reagan Democrat or a Clinton Democrat, or just a Democrat. This year, when you vote for president, vote for the person you believe is best for the country, not for the party you happen to belong to," Lieberman said.
Josh Gerstein, in the New York Sun: "Mr. Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats but has endorsed Mr. McCain, was widely expected to laud his Republican colleague last night. However, the senator of Connecticut went further, directly attacking the credentials of Mr. McCain's Democratic opponent, Senator Obama of Illinois."
Just across the river (as well as the divide): "Shut out of a visible role in the Republican convention, Texas congressman Ron Paul held his own raucous, shadow convention Tuesday night, officially launching a new political group he hopes will channel on some of the energy of his own failed presidential campaign," ABC's Nitya Venkataraman and Z. Byron Wolf report.
Ventura 2012? "Believe me, with people like myself, Dr. Paul, and the rest of us, let's get the revolution going," said former Gov. Jesse Ventura, I-Minn., speaking at Ron Paul's event. "If I see it start to rise up, well, then maybe in 2012."
The Obama campaign stirs: "Last Thursday, before Sen. John McCain's vice presidential pick had been named publicly -- when it was still unclear to all but a few individuals whether McCain would pick a running mate who supported abortion rights -- the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, sent radio stations in battleground states a radio ad that points out McCain's opposition to abortion," per ABC's Jake Tapper.
What Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is up to: "Peppering his 28-minute speech with Yiddish words, Biden also talked about the importance of remembering the Holocaust. He, in fact, was introduced by Dena Axelrod, a Holocaust survivor," per the Miami Herald's Amy Sherman.
While you're waiting for Gov. Palin's speech, Obama is back on the trail, with two events in Ohio. Per his campaign: "During both visits, Obama will discuss with Ohioans his agenda to help rebuild our economy, add more jobs both in Ohio and across the country, and strengthen the middle class."
And Obama does Bill O'Reilly's show Thursday -- for the first time in his political career.
Biden campaigns in Florida, while Michelle Obama is in Los Angeles.
President Bush travels to Baton Rouge, La., to get a briefing on emergency operations.
"I had to check in with you to tell you that you are bugging the f--- out. I don't even understand what planet you're on right now! This is the job to be the leader of the free world. . . . I want you to live to be 110, but things happen. What if, God forbid, you got a running mate, you become president -- Alaska? Alaska? Alaska? Alaska? Come on, man. I don't know if there's any black people in Alaska." -- Diddy, playing pundit.
"I do not want kids." -- Levi Johnston, on his MySpace page.
"Of course he is psyched to be a father." -- Blake Weiland, 18, on his friend, Levi Johnston, per the New York Daily News.
ABC NewsNOW coverage of the Republican National Convention, hosted by Sam Donaldson and Rick Klein, resumes at 7 pm ET (6 pm CT) Wednesday. Access the gavel-to-gavel action at abcnews.com/politics.
Guests Wednesday include former Gov. Jane Swift, R-Mass.; GOP strategist Phil Musser; and Tammy Haddad, of "TamCam" fame.
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