Palin kicks up the dust, takes TV nation by storm

ENTERTAINING, YES: But ultimately meaningless, says one political scientist.

September 5, 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 Thursday, 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 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 Alaska "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.

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."

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