- (Photo: AP Images / Charlie Neibergall)
- (Photo: AP Images / Charles Dharapak)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Sarah Palin has done in five days what John McCain has never been able to do — fire up the Republican Party's conservative base.
The No. 2 on the GOP ticket clearly impressed the party faithful Wednesday as she smoothly moved from lavishing praise on McCain — "a true profile in courage" who has "determination, resolve, and sheer guts" — to throwing punches at Democratic rival Barack Obama.
"Victory in Iraq is finally in sight. He wants to forfeit," Palin said in her vice presidential acceptance speech. "Government is too big. He wants to grow it. Congress spends too much. He promises more. Taxes are too high. He wants to raise them."
Even as controversy swirled around the Alaska governor, there was little doubt that loyalists loved this mother of five, churchgoer, abortion opponent and moose hunter. They erupted at every mention of her name before she took the stage. And they gave her a thunderous welcome when she emerged.
The question now: Do they adore her enough to turn out in droves for McCain in the fall?
Obama had better hope not.
Palin's selection has "reinvigorated the whole Republican Party. People who were feeling down are excited again," said Eagle Forum head Phyllis Schlafly. "Hell, they're even getting enthusiastic about McCain."
The one-time scourge of the GOP who now is its new standard-bearer has never been a favorite of the party's right flank. He isn't publicly passionate about cultural issues the base holds dear, and distrust remains years after he called influential Christian conservative leaders "agents of intolerance."
Nonetheless, he tried to get the security, fiscal and social conservative bloc to support him during the Republican primary.
He won the nomination anyway, and hoped the right would eventually fall in line.
It still didn't.
The GOP's conservative core has been depressed with its nominee since he clinched the nomination in March. McCain has made slow progress drawing the base to his side and getting it ginned up for the fall.
Conversely, the liberal Democratic foundation long ago embraced Obama and is, as the Illinois senator says, "fired up, ready to go."
Then, McCain chose Palin.
Conservatives sounded like the world was right again.
"An outstanding choice," praised Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.
"Grand slam home run," gushed former presidential candidate Gary Bauer.
"Ecstatic," said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
And, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch added, "I had tears in my eyes."
McCain insists he chose Palin because she was the best candidate — not because she was the best political option to appease conservatives.
"I can look the country in the eye and say this is a person who will bring change to Washington and start working for you and upon your side," he told ABC News.
Not everyone seems to buy that answer.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican, talked of the "pragmatism of politics" and said, "McCain felt that he had to solidify the base."
An AP-Ipsos poll from August showed McCain winning roughly the same percentage of Republicans as Obama would Democrats, but it also found McCain had the support of a smaller slice of conservatives than Obama had of liberals.
Both sides will be counting on their rank and file to turn out voters over the next two months.
In the days since McCain selected Palin, the media spotlight turned on the little-known governor's personal and professional life.
The world heard that her unwed teenage daughter is pregnant and that her husband once belonged to a fringe political group in which some members supported Alaska's secession from the United States.
Voters learned that a private attorney is authorized to spend $95,000 of state money to defend her against accusations of abuse of power and that she sought federal money for special pet projects for her city and state, in conflict with her reformer image.
Some Republicans questioned whether McCain had reviewed her background thoroughly enough. Many Democrats hammered McCain for having the gall to attack Obama on experience when he has chosen a running mate who hasn't been a governor for even two full years.
None of it seemed to matter to rock-solid conservatives.
They rushed to defend her and, in line with the McCain campaign's newfound strategy, attack the "liberal media." It's a surefire way to score points with the right — and talk radio hosts who speak to slews of conservatives.
Leading the charge, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson called Palin "a courageous, successful reformer who's not afraid to take on the establishment" and said her candidacy "has got the other side and their friends in the media in a state of panic."
Added former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, "I'd like to thank the elite media for doing something that, quite frankly, I wasn't sure could be done, and that's unifying the Republican Party and all of America in support of Senator McCain and Governor Palin."
It's no wonder why the right is embracing her.
Palin is more conservative than McCain on a range of issues.
She favors oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; he does not. Palin has called for teaching creationism alongside evolution in Alaska's public schools; McCain says he believes in evolution when it comes to the origin of life.
She backs a complete ban on abortion except when a doctor determines that the mother's life is at stake; McCain would also support exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Palin has said she doesn't believe humans have caused global warming; McCain says they have contributed to it.
There's no doubt that those who have "generally been sitting on their hands for the last year and grousing about McCain," are "pumped about her," said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. "He may have pulled off the impossible by finding someone who fires up independents and Reagan Democrats while not turning off social conservatives."