Palin's army

Sarah Palin rallies the faithful in the biggest speech of her lifetime.

Published September 4, 2008 4:09AM (EDT)

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Sarah Palin gave the Republican convention exactly what it was looking for Wednesday night at the Xcel Energy Center -- red meat. Lots of it. Probably moose, to be specific.

Palin got a rapturous ovation just walking onto the stage, and the crowd hung on her every word, roaring lustily with each applause line. Behind her, the Republicans' gigantic TV screen flashed shots of Mount Rushmore, the Liberty Bell, the National Mall and -- a little jarringly -- a sunset with an oil derrick in the foreground and a Ferris wheel in the background.

This was a speech that made clear what the election is going to be about: patriotism, cultural populism and some cheap shots along the way. (Were the two jokes about community organizing really necessary, or the line about not needing focus groups for her first election -- one in which a total of about 1,000 people voted?) That was just fine with the delegates here, who broke out in chants of "USA! USA!" over and over again; you might have thought the contest this fall was between John McCain and a foreign country. "She is nailing it!" a guy in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hat yelled out from the New York delegation. A woman wedged into an aisle near the U.S. Virgin Islands clasped her hands as if in prayer, under her chin, and stared up at the ceiling, where a Jumbotron showed a close-up shot of Palin.

"She was so inspiring," said Michelle Butterfield, a delegate's guest from Tallahassee, Fla., who had come to the floor to wave orange scarves along with all the women from the Sunshine State. (The Florida men, in a show of some sort of Republican chivalry, sat up in the stands, but as soon as Palin's speech was over they seemed to be flocking back down to restore the proper seating order.)

That all might have been fine if Palin had discussed much in the way of issues, but she mostly avoided them, except for a few obligatory calls to drill for oil everywhere and build new nuclear reactors. Palin's basic message, toward the end: McCain was tortured. Vote for him. "It's a long way from the fear and pain and squalor of a six-by-four cell in Hanoi to the Oval Office," Palin said. "But if Senator McCain is elected president, that is the journey he will have made." When she spoke about her son Track's deployment to Iraq, it was moving. But it was hard not to notice that she made no mention of Joe Biden's son Beau, who's also leaving for the same destination before Election Day. The implication was that only one ticket cared much for the troops.

For the first time this week, the convention floor was totally packed. A woman sitting near me almost fainted; floor marshals rushed to her and helped her out through a crush of people, as a friend shoved her BlackBerry and purse into someone's hand to follow behind with her. No one else was allowed on or off the floor for 10 minutes after Palin left it -- the aisles were too crowded.

Palin worked the room like a natural; her laugh line about hockey moms and pit bulls (the difference between them is lipstick) wasn't written into the prepared text, though it was surely wasn't just made up on the spot. That did introduce a certain irony into the sections of the speech where she mocked Barack Obama for giving speeches to packed crowds of adoring supporters in front of staged backdrops. But the delegates borrowed an attitude from "Animal House" -- forget it, she's rolling.

If the speech itself didn't get you worked up to go beat Obama for the sake of protecting baseball, Mom and apple pie, the musical act right afterward surely would have. Three country music stars walked out onto the stage after McCain awkwardly joined the Palin family, and led the crowd in a rendition of the national anthem interspersed with great lines from patriotic rhetoric (another odd juxtaposition with Palin's assault on speechifying). As Cowboy Troy (a "prominent performer of country rap," per Wikipedia) recited pieces of the Preamble to the Constitution, everyone on the floor near me roared, while a giant American flag waved on the video screen behind the stage. For a minute, I was pretty sure that when the crowd finally moved, we were all going to be swept out of the arena and into the Army. And for most of the people on the floor, that may have been true -- because Palin surely won herself and McCain a few thousand loyal troops for the battles of the fall.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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