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The Biggest Night Of Sarah Palin's Career

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There’s no question that the five days since John McCain announced that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was his choice for his Vice-Presidential running mate have been a rough ride. From the beginning, she has been subjected to scrutiny unrivaled since George H.W. Bush choose Dan Quayle as his running mate back in 1988.

Some of that criticism, such that the issues that relate to her qualifications and the question of whether the McCain campaign properly vetted Palin before announcing the selection, has been, I would submit justified — it’s only natural that questions like these would be raised about someone who was, until Friday at Noon, virtually unknown outside of the State of Alaska. Some of what’s come out, though, has been totally unjustified, such as the continuing media focus on the pregnancy of her daughter and the people who continue to ask if it’s appropriate for a mother of five children, including one with Down’s Syndrome, to run for Vice-President.

And while recent polls are saying that the public still has a generally positive opinion of the Alaska Governor, it’s also fairly clear that she has to make her case to the nation tonight in what may be the most important speech of the Republican National Convention.

And, apparently, Palin is getting ready for it:

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 — Since Sunday night, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been holed up in her suite in the Hilton Minneapolis while a parade of Sen. John McCain’s top advisers have briefed her on the nuances of his policy positions, national politics and, above all, how to introduce herself to the national audience she will address Wednesday night at the Republican convention.

Sitting around a dining room table, the McCain team has talked to her about Iraq, energy and the economy, but has focused on what she should say in her speech, struggling almost as hard as she has to prepare for what will be, along with a debate in October, her main opportunity to shape the way she is viewed by voters. Not anticipating that McCain would choose a woman as his running mate, the speech that was prepared in advance was “very masculine,” according to campaign manager Rick Davis, and “we had to start from scratch.”

By all accounts Palin has thrown herself enthusiastically into preparations for her prime-time debut as well as for her first campaign trip without McCain, expected to be next week. On Tuesday afternoon, she practiced her first run-through of the speech before an audience that included strategists Steve Schmidt, Nicolle Wallace and Mark Salter, who all offered suggestions.

“She’s very engaged, she’s very enthusiastic,” said Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella, who has attended some of the briefing and speechwriting sessions. “She clearly wants to absorb as much information as possible.”

The problem I see with that is two-fold.

First of all, an acceptance speech at a political nominating convention isn’t necessarily to time to demonstrate your ability to regurgitate facts about the situation in upper Kyrgyzstan, the impact of the dollar on the price of oil, or international trade. The function of speeches like this is supposed to be to rally the delegates and, if necessary (and it is necessary in Palin’s case), introduce yourself to the rest of the nation.

Second, as the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale back in 1984 demonstrated quite aptly, ramming a candidates head full of facts before a big appearance isn’t necessarily the best strategy. In that debate, Reagan was widely believed to have done poorly in that October 7th, 1984 debate and many people blamed it on campaign staff who prepared Reagan for the debate by having him spend endless hours reviewing briefing books rather than letting him be himself, which is what happened in the second debate a week later.

Will Palin make the same mistake by attempting to sound more wonkish than she actually is ?

Nate at 538.com spells out fairly well what Palin needs to accomplish tonight:

Voters have questions about Palin’s background, her governing philosophy, her readiness to lead, and her position on a variety of specific issues. It will be impossible to address all of these within the context of a single speech — particularly for someone who had never spoken to a national audience before last Friday. On the other hand, the pundits, recognizing the rough couple of days that she’s had in the press, will most likely be inclined to react sympathetically toward her. So may voters at home, buoyed by what will inevitably be an enthusiastic response in the Xcel Center.

Under these circumstances, it will be imperative for Palin not to overreach. I would avoid any specific claims — like her arguably false claim in Dayton on Friday that she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere — that won’t hold up to a FactCheck.org vetting. And I wouldn’t make any assertion to expertise in foreign policy. A claim, for instance, along the lines of what Cindy McCain said the other day — that Palin is a foreign policy expert because Alaska is close to Siberia — will ring hollow even if articulated well, and if articulated poorly, could easily become her Potato-e moment. The debate against Joe Biden, which Palin will have much more time to prepare for, is a better forum than that, an opportunity to demonstrate rather than assert her working knowledge of foreign policy.

I do think she has to convey a certain seriousness of purpose — one overly cute reference to mooseburgers is probably one too many — but there are ways to do that without invoking foreign policy, such as talking about “small town values”. A throwaway applause line or two critiquing the media is probably worthwhile, so long as it seems good-natured rather than defensive.

But basically, she shouldn’t try and do too much. If she pours the media half a glass, they’ll most likely be inclined to call it full.

At the same time, though, any mis-step, mis-statement, awkward moment, or outlandish claim (such as the “Palin has foreign policy experience because Alaska is close to Russia” meme that Republicans just keep repeating) will be repeated, jumped on, You-Tube’ed, and played endlessly on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Sarah Palin has a chance to turn the last five days around tonight, it’s up to her to do it. How she does will impact not only her political future, but may also set the tone for the rest of this campaign season.

Cross-posted at Below The Beltway