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Bill Orton
(D-Long Beach)

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Enter Stage Right: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin masters first week on national stage
by Bill Orton

    September 3, 2008 -- Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has, in less than a week, done what Arizona Senator John McCain has been unable to do throughout this long political campaign season, namely to electrify conservative Republicans and energize his party's activists.

    After five days dominating the media as the new face on the national stage, the running mate to John McCain stepped to the microphone in Minnesota to accept her party's nomination for vice president.

    And while she didn't write the words she spoke, Gov. Palin delivered a speech with an abundance of personal charm, wit, and an evident joy at playing the role of pit bull and defender of her conservative roots.

    She was up there giving the biggest speech of her life. And she had fun. She laughed and smiled easily and ad-libbed jokes.

    But more than anything, Sarah Palin demonstrated that she well deserves the nickname earned while playing high school sports -- namely, "Sarah Barracuda."

    Many Americans who before her speech wondered if Sarah Palin is ready to be a heartbeat from the Presidency will look at her performance and accept at face value that she is a skilled political figure who can carry the burden of heavy expectation and make it look easy.

    Critics may wish to discount her service, but Senator McCain is well within his rights to choose her, as Governor Palin meets those three qualifications set forth by the Founders to serve as President -- that she be 35 years old, born in America and be eight years a resident. She is constitutionally qualified to become president.

    Is she ready? That judgment should be left for the American people to decide.

    Most Presidents don't write their own speeches. Most leaders turn to advisers in the conduct of their duties. And even her short 22 months as Governor include some meaningful accomplishments.

    She may have stretched by comparing herself to another unlikely Vice Presidential nominee, namely Harry S Truman, but she is correct to cite a columnist of the day who said of HST that "we grow good people in our small towns."

    (Truman, remember, had been a well-liked Senator and the effective chairman of the committee charged with reigning in war profiteering during World War II and thus had close relations in Washington with leaders he would work with as Vice President and later as President.)

    Perhaps Sarah Palin would sit in cabinet meetings or sessions of the National Security Council, choosing to listen and learn. Perhaps she would brashly charge forward. Who knows how she would conduct herself in Washington.

    But few who watched her performance at the Republican convention can doubt that Sarah Palin is a woman of fierce determination with a competitive spirit and political talent that will make her one of the most effective campaigners of our time.

    Pretty strong words coming from a Democratic party activist, but I honestly believe that there is no figure within the Republican party who could yield greater results as John McCain's running mate (or "soulmate" as he calls her) than Sarah Palin.

    Clearly she has sent an electric jolt through the conservative base of the party in a way that no simple politician would have done. Anyone from Washington would be tainted by association with George Bush's big-spending government and a loss of direction on the right wing social agenda.

    Palin is unabashedly true to her strident conservative views. She is unapologetic about living out the values that others in Washington just tuck into press releases and then often ignore or compromise away.

    But for the rest of America, Sarah Palin is a question mark.

    A poll conducted just after being named as the presumptive nominee showed that two-thirds of Americans had not reached an opinion of the Governor, thus making her performance the most consequential speech of her candidacy.

    The intense hunger shown in the viewership numbers of who watched Senator Obama's acceptance speech last week in Denver (38 million) is the same appetite that greeted Palin's speech to the Republican convention.

    Yet under the intense pressure of this momentus speech and hunger by viewers to see her, she was enjoying herself. As supporters held up hand-made signs reading "Hockey Moms 4 Sarah," she ad-libbed a joke that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick.

    I warn the activists of my own party: Sarah Palin is that pit bull.

    She obviously did not draft the speech that she read to the delegates, but her commanding delivery and joy on the attack display that this Governor may be from a small state (populationwise), but she is no longer a small figure on the political stage.

    I am thankful that it is Senator Barak Obama who is my party's nominee for President, because the only pitch perfect responses of the last week over how to handle the Palin nomination has been by the gentleman from Illinois.

    Indeed, the only way to deal with Palin is to be a gentleman, to give her the respect due to a nominee and to allow the American people to form their own judgments.

    As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said, the traits that make for a good prosecutor and for a gentleman are the same, and if someone needs to ask what those traits are, then they do not possess them.

    Mr. Obama immediately took control of his campaign's response to the announcement of Ms. Palin's selection, by overriding his staff's "hair trigger" reaction and saying she has a "compelling personal story."

    Later, as the national media and blogosphere obsessed over twists and turns of the personal lives of her family, Mr. Obama emphatically stated that the families of a candidate should be off limits, and especially children.

    Not only is Mr. Obama correct, but his are the words of a gentleman that his own running mate, surrogates and Democratic rank-&-file would be wise to emulate.

    Senator Biden should stop comparing his looks to that of his opponent and focus instead on issues that voters in Wilmington or Scranton or Detroit or Cleveland are being pounded by.

    -- It is still about the economy.

    -- It is still about a war born from Dick Cheney's cooked intelligence and Karl Rove's partisan rancor.

    -- It is still about who can get job creation moving and give ordinary Americans a shot at going to the doctor.

    As Bill Clinton said, if Democrats focus on ideas, we win because our ideas are better.

    Sarah Palin is a brilliant choice to energize the Republican base for without the energy that she instantly sent pulsing through the party, John McCain would lose in a landslide and the congress with him.

    Governor Sarah Palin may be a good candidate for the oil industry in her state and as the embodiment of the conservative movement, but if we let the American people see the clear difference between the two parties on the issues driving this election, then Barak Obama will be our next President.

    And measuring the decision itself not by who was selected by by how the choice was made raises something seldom discussed, but if true suggests that Senator McCain's thinking was unbecoming a gentleman when he selected Sarah Palin.

    Perhaps the question of whether John McCain bases decisions on beauty is a matter for debate.

    He divorced his first wife, a swimwear model disfigured in a horrible accident, after returning from Vietnam so he could marry a beauty queen.

    This past April, John McCain hired Ashley Zais, the 2007 Miss South Carolina, to help in his state operation there after having met her once last summer after delivering a speech.

    John McCain's single meeting with Gov. Sarah Palin in February (when she was pregnant with her fifth child) clearly left an impression on the Senator, as he added her name to the list of potential running mates. If he had less than gentlemanly thoughts jogging his memory, that wouldn't be Sarah Palin's problem. It'd be John McCain's.

    No matter how John McCain came to the decision, the choice of Sarah Palin to fill out the Republican ticket demands that Democrats show the same gentlemanly conduct put on display by Senator Obama.

    Sarah Palin can perform masterfully at reading someone else's words to a rapt crowd that embraces her as the embodiment of a cultural movement.

    But millions of Americans still don't know her. Millions are not more are not comfortable with the idea of creationism being taught in public schools or declaring that humans are not somehow responsible for global warming.

    Let the American people form their own judgment of Sarah Palin. Provide a clear outline of her strongly held views. This is a free country. She's entitled to believe what she believes. If the American people are given the facts of what she stands for, they'll make their own decisions.

    No matter how she was selected, she is standing on the national stage. And if her masterful performance accepting her party's nomination for Vice President is any indicator, then these next 62 days will be a hard fought campaign.


Bill Orton is a writer and historian living in Long Beach, California.