Outsider Palin electrifies Republicans, mocks Obama

The 44-year-old Governor of Alaska, virtually unheard of outside the frontiers of her wild and remote state until last Friday, has taken just six days to smash her way into the American public’s consciousness.

She was greeted with a thunderous, sustained ovation by a Republican convention clearly smitten by John McCain’s fresh-faced, feisty, female and — above all — right-wing running-mate.

In front of a pumped-up audience of about 20,000 people at a packed-out Xcel Energy Arena with delegates waving signs saying, "Palin Power", a speech which regularly ripped into Barack Obama was repeatedly interrupted with chants of "Sarah! Sarah!" or people screaming out that they loved her.

Mrs Palin wasted no time in tackling head-on the critics who have scorned her experience, family and background. "I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment," she said. "And I’ve learned quickly, these past few days, that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.

"But here’s 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."

As the first woman ever to appear on a Republican presidential ticket, she was always going to be the object of wonder and fascination. But Mrs Palin’s palpably thin political record has come under the most intense scrutiny this week even as rumours rain down about her teenage daughter, the birth earlier this year of Trig, her Down’s Syndrome baby and – last night – unsubstantiated tabloid allegations about an extra-marital affair.

She had spent two days huddled in St Paul’s Hilton hotel with Mr McCain’s team drafting last night’s address, taking a crash course on policy and preparing for her prime time debut.

But yesterday Mrs Palin emerged with her family to greet the Republican nominee on the airport tarmac as he arrived in St Paul. Her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, who has been caught in the full glare of publicity, received sympathetic hugs from the Republican nominee. There was also a kiss on the head for Trig, then a handshake for Levi Johnston – a self-described "f***in redneck", and Bristol’s soon-to-be husband and the father of her child.

Later, with her family sitting in the crowd alongside Mr McCain’s wife, Cindy, – and just a few feet away from a dozen TV cameras trained on their faces – she used the convention speech to re-introduce them to American voters.

Mrs Palin spoke proudly of her soldier son, Track, who is being deployed to Iraq this week, her three "strong and kind-hearted daughters Bristol, Willow, and Piper", Trig, "a perfectly beautiful baby boy" and husband, Todd who after two decades and five children is "still my guy".

She added: "From the inside, no family ever seems typical. That’s how it is with us. Our family has the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and the same joys. Sometimes even the greatest joys bring challenge."

And she talked of living in a small town as "just your average hockey mom", getting to know voters without the need for focus groups and then becoming mayor of tiny Wasilla. In the first of several jabs aimed at Barack Obama, referring to the Democratic nominee’s repeated references to his youth working as a community organiser, she said they had done similar jobs – except that mayors "have actual responsibilities."

Citing his remarks at a private San Francisco fundraiser about small town Americans, she said: "We don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening."

Mrs Palin described Mr Obama as "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 added: "Listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform.

"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 answer is to make government bigger, take more of your money, give you more orders from Washington, and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world. America needs more energy, our opponent is against producing it.’

Mrs Palin said she "shook things up" in Alaska after seizing power from her own party’s establishment, to put the government "back on the side of the people"; she drove through ethics reform, pursued energy initiatives, cancelled wasteful projects and sold the governor’s luxury jet on eBay.

And she contrasted Mr McCain’s maverick heroism in the military and the Senate floor with Mr Obama’s lofty rhetoric, saying: "There are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change."

Many conservatives, exhausted by eight years of President Bush and suspicious of Mr McCain’s commitment to their cause, appear captivated by the story of this moose-hunting, snowmobile-riding mother of five. They sense that Mrs Palin — an evangelical who opposes abortion and believes Creationism should be taught in schools — is one of their own.

But yesterday, two senior Republicans were caught by an open MSNBC microphone ridiculing the choice of Mrs Palin as vice-presidential nominee. Mike Murphy, an ex-adviser to Mr McCain, was heard saying: "It’s not going to work!" Peggy Noonan, a former White House speechwriter, replied: "It’s over…They went for this, excuse me, political bullshit about narratives. Every time Republicans do that, they blow it." Other strategists continue to question Mr McCain’s judgement in picking a running mate who apparently only had a cursory "vetting" from his staff beforehand.

They doubt whether, with Mr McCain trailing Mr Obama by an average of 5.8 per cent in the polls, the raw and ragged-edged Mrs Palin can reach beyond the Republican base to swing voters watching on TV.

Mr McCain last night was adamant that he had picked a winner, coming on to the stage to congratulate her on the speech and telling delegates: "Don’t you think we made the right choice for the next vice-president of the United States of America!"

His campaign has embarked on an aggressive counter-attack against a favourite target of the conservative movement — liberal bias in the media. Chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, accused it of being "on a mission to destroy" Mrs Palin, saying some reporters were even demanding Mrs Palin take a DNA test to prove she is the mother of Trig.

The publicity is propelling issues such as abortion and marriage, which dominated the "culture wars" in US politics for a generation, back towards the top of the party’s agenda. And Mrs Palin herself is energising the party in a way that even some vigorous drum-banging by the ageing white men – who have spoken in St Paul this week before her – can not.

Last night they included three ex-rivals of Mr McCain for the Republican nomination, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Mr Giuliani, the former New York Mayor, said: "Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada," adding that "’change’ is not a destination and ‘hope’ is not a strategy’".

Mr Huckabee attacked the Democratic nominee as being weak on foreign policy, saying: "Maybe the most dangerous threat of an Obama presidency is that he would continue to give madmen the benefit of the doubt. If he’s wrong just once, we will pay a heavy price."