The first night of the Republican's hurricane-delayed convention didn't matter--thanks to John McCain's decision to place Sarah Palin on his ticket. By choosing the little-known Alaska governor, who a short while ago was mayor of a small town and who has come to the national stage with soap opera in tow, McCain made Palin the story of this shortened week. There's more anticipation for her acceptance speech (on Wednesday night) than for his (Thursday night). George W. Bush, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani—forget about 'em, only Palin truly counts.
But the first night did reveal what McCain's strategists are thinking—or worrying—about. The speakers focused over and over on McCain's experience as a Vietnam prisoner of war and devoted little time to his 21 years in the Senate. It was almost as if McCain's two-and-a-half decades in Congress were a dirty secret. And one of the main speeches of the night—delivered by former Senator Fred Thompson—was full of 1980s-styled Republican red meat. (Democrats support abortion rights and will raise YOUR taxes.) It seemed as if the convention planners were so concerned about the Republican base that they had to go back to the future and plagiarize the Reagan playbook. And throughout the night, there was practically no acknowledgment there's any economic pain in the world outside the Xcel Energy Center. The McCain people say, this election is about character, not issues. Tonight really proved that: McCain doesn't need to feel voters' pain; they need to feel his.
The Republicans were somewhat fortunate they only have three evenings to program, due to Hurricane Gustav. How many times can McCain's "service" be praised before a well-behaved, not-very-excited crowd of well-dressed, older and predominantly white Americans who sit in neat rows beneath an electronic billboard bearing the phrase "Country First" and who hold on their laps placards that proclaim, "Service"? And how many Teddy Roosevelt references?
McCain may be the top of the ticket, but Palin has been the main attraction. After the news of her teenage daughter's pregnancy emerged—and smothered rumors that Palin had faked a pregnancy to cover up a supposed earlier pregnancy—the convention seemed to freeze. At receptions, during panel discussions, and in hotel lobbies, there was no talk of Bush's speech, which was first canceled and then rescheduled (as a video address on Tuesday). And no talk of what would be in McCain's speech. The one question is, how will she do?