Analysis: GOP sharpens tone on Palin's night

Forget the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast and the firestorm that greeted Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's entry on the national scene.

On Wednesday night, the Republican National Convention finally got down to business: painting Democrat Barack Obama as untested, even dangerous, and boosting John McCain as a reformer who can be trusted to change Washington.

Not to mention introducing the obscure first-term governor he announced as his running mate five days ago as a tough partisan ready to ridicule the opposition.

The language was sharper, the pacing faster, the convention floor more crowded and the audience more animated than they had been at Tuesday's subdued opening session. Monday's evening program had been canceled because of Hurricane Gustav.

On Wednesday, Palin was the featured speaker and Obama the designated target, portrayed by speaker after speaker as elitist, indecisive and misguided on everything from taxes to terrorism.

Palin even laced her autobiography with barbs.

"I was just your average hockey mom (who) signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better," Palin said. She ran for the City Council, became mayor of her hometown of Wasilla and then governor.

"And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves," Palin went on. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

That was an unmistakable reference to Obama's résumé and one of several lines in a take-no-prisoners speech that displayed her credentials as a campaigner. Palin signaled that she is more than willing to take on not only Obama and his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, but also those who have been dissecting her qualifications for the White House, often unfavorably.

Saying she was "not a member in good standing in the Washington elite," she offered "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."

That line brought boos and jeers by the crowd to TV cameras and journalists working in the press stand.

Palin focused in particular on energy, which the campaign sees as a signature issue for her, calling for more drilling and more nuclear power. Convention planners also aired a video outlining McCain's economic proposals.

Still, the chief speakers in prime time, Palin and keynoter Rudy Giuliani, focused not on detailing McCain's policy proposals but on defining his opponent. In his text, Giuliani said the word "McCain" 15 times; he said "Obama" nearly as often, 11 times.

The hard-edged rhetoric seemed designed more to rally Republican troops than appeal to undecided independents.

The former New York mayor suggested that Obama had switched positions on such issues as Jerusalem's status, warrantless wiretapping and campaign financing. "If I were Joe Biden, I'd want to get that VP thing in writing," Giuliani joked.

"He's never had to lead people in crisis," he said of Obama. "Not a personal attack. A statement of fact. Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada. The choice in this election comes down to substance over style. John McCain has been tested. Barack Obama has not."

Earlier, when Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle declared from the podium that Obama had zero executive experience — "Zero!" — the crowd took it up the chant: "Zero! Zero! Zero!" They would repeat it, off and on, through the evening.

It was a late start for a critical week. The convention is one of a few moments, along with the fall debates, that some casual voters tune in to politics. It's a chance to buff a nominee's appeal or dent his opponent.

More than 21 million people watched the GOP convention Tuesday night, Nielsen reported — a huge number, albeit fewer than the nearly 26 million people who watched the second night of the Democratic National Convention last week, when New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the hall.

"It's a delayed opportunity," John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, said of the truncated GOP convention. He said it probably wasn't decisive, though, especially if the speeches by Palin on Wednesday and McCain tonight go well: "There are only so many speeches people are going to listen to anyway."

Palin stood on stage and made her case. She depicted herself as an independent-minded fiscal conservative, an advocate for special-needs children such as her son Trig — and a caustic critic of the Democratic opposition.

"This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word 'victory' except when he's talking about his own campaign," she said. "But when the cloud of rhetoric has passed, when the roar of the crowd fades away, when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot —what exactly is our opponent's plan? What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet?"

The crowd rose and cheered.