Palin becomes a TV star

September 4, 2008 

MIAMI - A couple of weeks ago, "Fox News Sunday" executive producer Marty Ryan called political analyst William Kristol aside. Why, Ryan wondered, did Kristol keep touting the chances of an obscure first-term governor to be the Republican vice-presidential nominee?

"You keep talking about Sarah Palin, Bill, but nobody else seems to have her name on their list," Ryan complained.

"And now, everybody's talking about her," Ryan said today, laughing as he recalled the conversation. "She was a game-changer for the convention and for the campaign. ... She brings a buzz to the whole general-election campaign that might not have been there without her."

The telegenic Alaska governor's free-swinging speech at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night will change the way that television covers the rest of the campaign, TV journalists and political scientists said, boosting the vice-presidential race from an afterthought and turning the debate between Palin and Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Oct. 2 into one of the most highly anticipated events of the fall.

"She's a great story, and she's very good on television," CBS political analyst Jeff Greenfield said. "What she did Wednesday night was the classic, archetypal, all-American tale: Spunky small-town girl comes to the big city, takes on the big shots and wins."

That story attracted considerable interest. Some 37.2 million viewers - an astonishingly large number for a night when the presidential candidate wasn't speaking - tuned in for Palin's speech, only a million fewer than watched Barack Obama's historic acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last week.

The substance of Palin's speech was still being debated Thursday, and probably will continue to be for the rest of the election. Was she really against that infamous Alaskan "bridge to nowhere?" Can America drill its way out of high gasoline prices? Are her opponents really elitists and congenital flip-floppers? Is it fair for her to use her family as a political prop one moment and declare it off-limits the next?

But when it came to style and media impact, the verdict was in within minutes: CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "The new star of this Republican party. . . . She really did hit it out of the park tonight." CBS's Dan Bartlett: "A political star was born this week. You just saw it on this stage." Fox News' Chris Wallace: "A star was born tonight, a new star in the political galaxy."

Even before her speech, the 44-year-old Palin had become practically an obsession for reporters, who went to the Republican convention expecting a prepackaged infomercial and unexpectedly found themselves with a story.

Occasionally the coverage bordered on self-parody: TV networks trumpeted exclusive interviews with Palin's sister (who revealed that the family is "very close"), mother-in-law (who admitted that she's voting Republican) and friends (one of whom disclosed that, "I think she's going to make us all proud.").

The faux scoops were the result of a genuine thirst for information, said Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor and the author of "The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution."

"You've got a triple novelty," Goldstein said. "No. 1, it's a Republican woman, and No. 2, a total unknown, and No. 3, my God, she's from Alaska, an unknown and esoteric state."

Not since the Republicans nominated Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew in 1968 - decades before the advent of round-the-clock cable news and the infinite universe of the Internet - has there been a vice presidential candidate with less previous national media exposure, Goldstein noted.

The novelty will wear off as the campaign continues, analysts said, but Palin's flair for television probably won't. She's an animated, expressive speaker, turning up one side of her mouth in a wry smile as she makes a joke about herself, turning down the other in a can-you-believe-this frown as she rips an opponent for something he said. And it never hurts to be good-looking. (CNN cameras spotted a delegate's button: "Hoosiers for the hot chick.")

"She's very good, relaxed, comfortable with the camera," CBS's Greenfield said. "There was one point when the TelePrompTer was eating the first sentence of every paragraph of the speech, and she just rolled with it. The joke about the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull being lipstick, that was not in the text. She ad-libbed it perfectly."

Whatever extra interest Palin creates in the election, however, is unlikely to make a difference in the outcome, most analysts agreed.

"People vote for and against the heads of the ticket, who in this case are Barack Obama and John McCain, not Joe Biden and Sarah Palin," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who found Palin's speech entertaining but ultimately meaningless.

"The only thing people remember from a convention after a few weeks is the speech of the presidential nominee," he said. "There's always a hullabaloo when the vice presidential candidate is announced, and by October, they don't even know where these people are campaigning."

Garvin is the television critic for The Miami Herald.

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