Analysis: Palin sharpens tone

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 formally nominating John McCain as a reformer who can be trusted to change Washington.

Not to mention introducing the first-term governor he chose to be his running mate 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 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 laced even 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. "Since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves," Palin said. "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 likely approach as a campaigner over the next nine weeks. Palin signaled she was ready 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."

The crowd directed jeers at the TV cameras and journalists working in the press stands.

Palin focused in particular on energy, which the campaign sees as a signature issue for her, calling for more drilling and more nuclear power.

Still, Palin and keynoter Rudy Giuliani, the two speakers who appeared during prime time, focused not on detailing McCain's policy proposals but on defining his opponent. In her text, Palin used the words "McCain" and "our nominee" 21 times. She referred to "Obama" and "our opponent" 56 times.

The tough rhetoric and sharp-edged humor seemed designed more to rally GOP troops than appeal to undecided independents.

Giuliani 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," the former New York City mayor 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 that Obama had zero executive experience — "Zero!" — the crowd took 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 undecided 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 in Denver.

"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, little known and under fire, delivered what was probably the most anticipated speech of the convention. Looking confident and poised, she depicted herself as an independent-minded fiscal conservative, an advocate for special-needs children such as her son Trig — and a critic of Obama.

"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.