The charge from Democrats was that John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin was a cynical gambit aimed at female voters.
McCain’s real objective in the pick was the same as so many of his Republican predecessors: to win over swing voters anxious about cultural decay.
At their convention last week, Democrats sought to cast the central conflict in America as a struggle between rich and poor, not good and evil. The culture wars, they hoped, were drawing to a close.
But Palin has allowed McCain to change the character of the race.
The argument during the Democratic primaries was that Barack Obama could avoid the charges of liberal elitism and moral ambiguity that have dragged down prior Democratic nominees.
As a black man, a church-goer, and the son of a single mom, Obama was positioned to avoid the fate of Al Gore and John Kerry, who were said to have lost over “guns, God, and gays.”
Since John McCain has never been a convincing culture warrior, his ability to paint Obama as a moral relativist was in doubt.
But Palin, with her big family, evangelical church and frontier attitude, is better suited to make cultural values a central issue. For the next seven weeks, Palin will use her personal story for all it’s worth.
Obama has notable weak spots on the values front — especially his remarks on “bitter” small-town residents and equivocal answers to questions on abortion and the existence of good and evil.
With Iraq stabilizing and the economy stalled rather than collapsing, voters may not be worried enough about those issues to leap into the multicultural, internationalist future Democrats laid out in Denver.
The Republicans on the floor here — in all of their middle-of-America splendor, eyes closed in prayer or dancing awkwardly to out-of-date pop music — may wind up looking like better guardians of the national virtue.
And so was McCain, with his rather lopsided grin stretching completely across a battle-scarred face. “I won't let you down,” he said, and the crowd cheered again.