In the high-stakes political game John McCain is playing, the speech by his running mate Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention Wednesday is the equivalent of going all in.
Palin, unknown to most Americans just a week ago, will take the stage tonight at the height of a media frenzy that has encompassed everything from her stance on federal earmarks to the Facebook page of the young man who impregnated her teenage daughter.
The 44-year-old former mayor of the town of Wasilla (population 6,715) has been subjected since Friday to the kind of media vetting that is usually spread over a period of years.
Wednesday, the mother of five has one last chance to leave a positive impression.
“Voters have been getting to know Sarah Palin over the past few days,” pollster Scott Rasmussen said. “Now, the end of the introduction comes in her speech.”
Rasmussen said that prior to being picked, almost 90 percent of those polled had no opinion of Palin. In polling since her introduction by McCain, Palin has drawn consistent approval ratings around 53 percent.
It’s been the announcement of the pregnancy of Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, that caught the most headlines this week. And when Gov. Palin takes the stage tonight, the issue will be front and center.
The mother of Palin’s prospective son-in-law told the Associated Press that Levi Johnston — who was vaulted from small-town hockey star to the front page of the New York Times — was on his way to St. Paul on Tuesday to join the Palin family for the governor’s big night.
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis declined to say whether Palin will address family matters during her acceptance speech but strongly hinted she would do so, saying the event would provide a setting for her to “get past” some of the subjects “the media has focused on in the past 24 hours.”
For rank-and-file Republicans, there hasn’t been anything to get over. Palin is enjoying near-universal support from social conservative leaders, and poll numbers show that the GOP likes Palin and that she has increased support for McCain within the party.
But having thrilled the grass roots, Palin must now satisfy a Republican establishment of her ability to handle the level of pressure she faces.
“We’ll see how she performs,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who runs the Republican fundraising effort in the House. “Clearly, she’s got to rise to the occasion.”
Beyond her own party, though, Palin faces a tougher sales job.
The revelation that Palin, while mayor of Wasilla, authorized the hiring of a lobbyist to press Congress for earmark spending has cast a shadow over her reputation as a as an opponent of the political status quo.
Democrats are also hoping that the report on an ethics probe over Palin’s firing of Alaska’s public safety chief, due out five days before the Nov. 4 election, will further erode her status as a western reformer.
One way that the McCain campaign may try to prevent that is by having Palin assume the traditional role of taking shots at the other side.
Top campaign officials, who asked that their names not be used, confirmed that drafts of Palin’s speech contained several points of “contrast” with the Democratic ticket.
“We expect she will be very much up to that job,” one staffer said.
Examiner staff writers Susan Ferrechio and Quin Hillyer contributed to this report.