ST. PAUL, Minn.-On a rainy afternoon in downtown St. Paul, Minn., one of the rowdier parties of the Republican National Convention (RNC) opened with a four-piece band, an open bar, and long-time evangelical leader Phyllis Schlafly.
Social conservatives and evangelicals decked out in red-white-and-blue and flashing American flag buttons packed the second-floor ballroom of the swanky Crowne Plaza Hotel at a reception for pro-life Republicans overjoyed about one person: Gov. Sarah Palin.
The crowd of nearly 800 RNC delegates and other Republicans paid $95 each to attend the standing-room-only event where Palin was originally slated to speak. The pro-life Alaska governor would not make an appearance, but only because she had accepted a more pressing assignment just four days earlier: running for the Republican vice presidency. Schlafly told the cheering crowd that Palin had energized conservatives once sluggish over Sen. John McCain's presidential bid: "All those people who were holding back, not sure, are now excited and ready to go to work and elect the McCain-Palin ticket this year."
Just how Palin-energized was this crowd? When a pair of protesters slipped onto the stage next to Schlafly, carrying signs reading "Pro-life = Universal Healthcare," and briefly commandeering the microphone, the crowd drowned them out by chanting: "Sarah! Sarah!" They also hoisted pro-Palin signs and wore buttons and T-shirts emblazoned with the candidate's name. One elderly man in a tan suit boasted a homemade sign taped to his back: "Elect Sarah." McCain's name barely surfaced at the event.
If the previous week had belonged to Sen. Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver, the Republicans' week in Minnesota belonged to Palin. GOP leaders hailed McCain's surprise pick and fiercely defended the first-term governor during a week of intense media scrutiny that turned ugly in some quarters.
A week that included a hurricane in the Gulf Coast and a media firestorm in Minnesota tested Republicans already facing a stormy relationship with many voters. By week's end at least two things were clear: The party managed to weather some of the week's toughest challenges, but faced plenty more in the final two months of a neck-and-neck race for the White House.
The first storm of the week was wholly unexpected: Hurricane Gustav churned off the Gulf of Mexico and threatened to swamp the beleaguered Gulf Coast, including New Orleans residents. By Sunday evening, nearly 2 million Louisiana residents had fled their homes, marking the largest evacuation in the state's history.
Nearly 1,800 miles north, RNC officials were clamoring to revamp plans for the convention's opening night, fearing a celebratory event with political rhetoric would appear crass in the face of a potential disaster in the Gulf. On Sunday afternoon, McCain announced the RNC would scuttle most of its opening ceremonies and turn its attention to relief efforts in the South.
The next morning, RNC officials at the Minnesota Convention Center put the finishing touches on an assembly center for relief packages to aid Gulf Coast residents affected by Gustav. RNC spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said convention-planners would work with Target, FedEx, and the Red Cross to assemble 80,000 relief kits.
The assembly center was one part of an intense Republican effort to avoid the kind of fumbled response that dogged the federal government in Hurricane Katrina's wake exactly three years earlier. Republican officials and the McCain campaign scrambled to display compassion and competence to a wary public. President Bush hurried to Texas to monitor the unfolding storm, and first lady Laura Bush met with Louisiana delegates in Minnesota and helped lead fundraising efforts for hurricane relief at the RNC.
By Monday evening, the Gulf Coast had avoided a debilitating hit from Gustav, and RNC officials aimed to resume a normal schedule. But while Gustav had been swirling off the Gulf Coast, a political storm was brewing elsewhere: News broke that Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was five months pregnant. The Palin family volunteered the news to dispel internet rumors that Palin's 4-month-old son belonged to Bristol.
The McCain campaign said it knew of the pregnancy before selecting Palin, and the Palin family released a statement saying Bristol planned to marry the unborn child's father, Levi Johnston. Palin and her husband, Todd, said they were "proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby, and even prouder to become grandparents."
If anyone expected social conservatives to pounce on the Palins, the opposite happened: Groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family released statements supporting the Palin family and commending the young couple's decision to keep their unborn child.
Obama told reporters that candidates' children should remain off-limits, admonishing the press to "back off" the story, and reminding them that his mother gave birth at age 18. Others weren't so temperate. Tabloids churned out vicious cover stories, bloggers offered salacious commentary, and op-ed writers charged the Palins with hypocrisy. Us Weekly magazine headlined its cover of Palin and her 4-month-old, "Babies, Lies & Scandal," drawing over 6,000 comments on its website, most pointing out the contrast to an earlier cover on Obama family life headlined, "Why Barack Loves Her."
While some journalists examined legitimate questions about Palin's background and work history, many dismissed her candidacy before the questions were answered. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd scorned Palin's University of Idaho education and called Palin's candidacy "a hockey chick flick" and "a Cinderella story so preposterous it's hard to believe it's not premiering on Lifetime."
Meanwhile, press scrutiny of Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, remained scant, even as the News Journal, a Delaware newspaper, reported on Biden's statements about the driver who struck his family in a 1972 accident that killed Biden's wife and baby daughter.
As recently as last year, Biden told a crowd at the University of Iowa that the driver, Curtis Dunn, who died in 1999, "allegedly drank his lunch instead of eating his lunch" before the accident. The senator has made similar statements in the past, but the Delaware newspaper reported that investigators ruled alcohol wasn't involved in the crash.
The paper also reported that since the announcement of Biden's vice presidential nomination in August, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and The Economist have published stories characterizing Dunn as a drunk driver.
Dunn's daughter, Pamela Hammill, told the News Journal that her family is distraught to see Biden's comments surfacing, and that her father was haunted by the accident: "The family feels these statements are both hurtful and untrue and we didn't know where they originated from."
Biden spokesman David Wade told the paper that the senator "fully accepts the Dunn family's word that these rumors were false." But the retraction didn't capture national attention.
The worst of the media attention on Palin's family captured the ire of many conservatives. Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a former presidential candidate, told WORLD: "If the media and the far left keep savaging her, I suspect it will backfire."
One day later, Palin appeared defiant during an acceptance speech that more than 40 million Americans watched on live television. (Those numbers rivaled Obama's television audience from a week earlier.) After methodically introducing her family members, Palin told reporters questioning her experience that she wasn't going to Washington "to seek your good opinion."
Palin wowed convention-goers in the 18,000-seat Xcel Center, despite behind-the-scenes difficulties: From the press section, reporters could see that the teleprompter projecting Palin's speech moved too quickly, cutting off portions of text before Palin delivered them. At one point the teleprompter moved too slowly, prompting Palin to tell an unscripted joke to the delegates holding signs declaring "Hockey Moms for Palin." "You know what they say is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?" she asked. "Lipstick."
Palin may need pit bull grit and more to endure the next two months, which will likely include answering more questions about her background.
But if she needs grit, so will McCain. Though the week in Minnesota belonged to Palin, the rest of the campaign will belong mostly to the man on top of the ticket. "In the end people vote for a president," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told WORLD. "By the end of October, we won't be thinking much about Sarah Palin or Joe Biden."
What will voters be thinking about? If Obama has his way, voters will think about the economy. If McCain has his way, they'll think about foreign policy and national security. In all likelihood, they'll be thinking of both. Meanwhile, McCain and Obama will focus on a common goal: wooing moderate and independent voters.
McCain began that effort in earnest during his acceptance speech on Thursday night, when he lambasted corruption in his own party: "We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger."
To convention-goers' delight, McCain touted a conservative agenda of lower taxes and smaller government, but he also reminded voters that he's fought corruption on both ends of the spectrum: "I fought tobacco companies and trial lawyers, drug companies and union bosses."
Picking Palin may help McCain reach independents and moderates, but not for the reasons some have cited. While some pundits declared McCain was trying to reach Sen. Hillary Clinton's supporters with Palin, Sabato doubts that's what McCain had in mind: "Palin's role is to energize the base à la 2004, and let McCain reach out to moderate and independent voters."
Since McCain has scored what Southern Baptist leader Richard Land called "a grand slam" with conservatives by choosing Palin, he's more free to turn his attention to other blocs of voters and battleground states that may decide the election.
Still, McCain has a formidable battle. Sabato summed up McCain's task over the next two months: "He has to define a McCain presidency as not being a third Bush term, and not being as dangerous as an Obama term."
McCain's success in that task may hinge partly on convincing voters worried about the economy that his economic plan is different than the president's policies, but better than Obama's proposals.
So far, he hasn't made that case compellingly enough, according to political scientist and Republican consultant David Woodard of Clemson University. Woodard says that while McCain's free-market ideas will appeal to conservatives, he also has to "explain how Reagan economics work in a global economy."
McCain hinted at that theme in his convention speech, saying he would reform unemployment benefits designed for workers in the 1950s, and emphasize education for new jobs in a new economy. But he'll need to keep developing that message for voters concerned about the bottom line, says Woodard: "If Democrats start hammering on the economy, that's their issue to win with this year."
Another challenge McCain faces over the next two months is a series of presidential debates with Obama. "Rhetorically he [McCain] isn't even close to the match of his opponent," said Woodard. "He's got gravitas, but he's not very exciting when he speaks."
Sabato says it's hard to predict which style-or which candidate-will win over voters. "Sometimes the rhetoric soars and it sells," he said. "Sometimes the straight talk sells. We'll just have to wait and see."