- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn | It opened with Americans still filtering home from their Labor Day weekend and ended with television viewers distracted by the National Football League opener.

In between, it was thrown off message by the ravages of Hurricane Gustav and a media ruckus over the surprise pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter.

Yet, at the end of the most chaotic and unpredictable nominating convention in recent memory, John McCain had managed to win over some of his harshest conservative critics and unite the recently fractious Republican Party for the election campaign ahead.

The turning point came Wednesday night with the blockbuster speech by Mrs. Palin, the Alaska governor named last week as Mr. McCain’s running mate. She electrified the crowd in the convention hall, won the hearts of skeptical conservatives and drew more than 37 million curious Americans to their television sets.

Mrs. Palin’s speech was watched by just 1 million fewer people than watched Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s historic acceptance speech a week ago.

“This lady has turned it all around,” crowed Rush Limbaugh on his nationally syndicated radio show Thursday.

Mr. Limbaugh, who has been an outspoken critic of Mr. McCain, said, “From now on, on this program, John McCain will be known as John McBrilliant. …

“The convention has been unified on the basis of conservatism,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “Believe me, Barack Obama has a lot to fear today and he knows it.”

The reaction was no less enthusiastic among the delegates awaiting Mr. McCain’s acceptance speech in St. Paul. “Things built up to Palin’s speech, and she knocked it out of the park,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House lawyer who was one of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most vocal supporters in the Democratic Primary, said in an interview that he was hearing from other Democrats on Thursday who “were very taken with [Mrs. Palin], enough to consider voting for McCain.”

Even Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs admitted that the engaging Alaska governor had given a “tremendous” speech, though he faulted the Republicans for skimping on economic and foreign policy details throughout the convention.

Even so, the McCain camp that weathered Gustav had to spend the last day of their convention worrying whether Thursday night’s football game would end before their candidate took the stage.

The matchup between the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and Washington Redskins was scheduled to end just minutes before Mr. McCain’s acceptance speech, the highlight of the convention.

“Ah, you’ve got the ‘Skins starting tonight, this could be bad,” joked GOPAC Chairman Michael S. Steele. “No, the football game will likely be over [when Mr. McCain begins to speak] and the Redskins will have won.”

Even Fox News, a favorite with conservatives, threatened to draw viewers away from the show in St. Paul, scheduling a Bill O’Reilly interview with Mr. Obama opposite scheduled speeches by the likes of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

A convention is meant to be a boon from the political gods, a candidate’s chance to introduce himself to the nation in a made-for-TV event that unfolds like clockwork.

But this one was disrupted by Hurricane Gustav, which knocked out the first night’s political activity and took wind from the sails of the Republican faithful who had thronged to the Twin Cities for a celebration.

“We’ve just had to power through some outside circumstances that are ultimately entirely out of our control,” said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

“The convention was a product of months and months of strategy meetings, planning meetings, logistical meetings,” he said. “As the storm came and we got news of when that might hit, it was a complete shuffling of the deck. We had to basically scrap the agenda and rebuild one block at a time.”

Faiz Shakir, research director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said the party lost a chance to negatively define Mr. Obama.

“The big thing was that they weren’t able to drive the distinction between Obama and McCain as they wanted to. They would have come out much harder earlier in the week,” he said.

But conservative radio show host Armstrong Williams saw the hurricane as “a bonus” for the McCain campaign because it prompted the unpopular President Bush to stay on the job in Washington.

“They didn’t want Bush and Cheney here, and it gave them an excuse,” Mr. Williams said. “Plus, it made McCain look like a leader.”

Once the convention got started, two full days were consumed by nonstop controversy over Mrs. Palin’s family and her qualifications for the vice presidency. Mrs. Palin’s 17-year-old unwed daughter was announced to be pregnant on Tuesday, fueling charges that the governor was unfit to lead.

McCain officials angrily denounced what they called sexist questions that would not be raised about a male candidate.

Even Mr. Davis, who decried sexist attacks on Mrs. Clinton during the Democratic primary, said the controversy over Mrs. Palin “actually helped her.”

“Everybody wanted to see her. Everybody was curious,” he said. “Because of all the publicity that preceded her, there was a huge sympathy factor, yours truly included … In effect she benefited from suffering through this horrible media.”

Gary Jones, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said Mrs. Palin’s speech “provided the spark to get us back on track.”

“Tuesday night, I felt the electricity coming back in the convention center, and [Wednesday] night the electricity was very high,” said Stewart Iverson, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. “I think people are very excited and are going to go back to their respective states and work very hard to get the team elected.”

Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, said: “the storm has been forgotten.”

“The storm has actually been Storm Sarah.”

Jennifer Haberkorn, James Armstrong and Hannah Wahlen contributed to this report.

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