ST. PAUL The party's nominee gave a nice, but not terribly memorable acceptance speech. He was upstaged at his own convention by another speech, an stirring address that propelled a political newcomer to national stardom.
Add that fate to the list of things that John McCain has in common with his friend, fellow senator, fellow Vietnam combat veteran and fellow presidential nominee John Kerry.
Does anyone remember a single line from Kerry's 2004 Democratic presidential nomination speech after his opening salute and announcement that he was, "reporting for duty"?
Kerry's speech was all but buried in the lingering buzz about the speech given two nights earlier by the skinny biracial Senate candidate with the funny name. Now Obama is the Democratic nominee against Republican nominee McCain, who showed he could set off fireworks of his own by naming Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.
If Obama's big speech gave his party its own Colin Powell, Palin's big speech in St. Paul last week offered an electrifying blend of Annie Oakley with a spoonful of Roseanne's blue-collar "domestic goddess" sarcasm.
Sure, her experience at national politics is slim to none and so is the public's knowledge of her. That's bound to cause headaches for her and McCain's campaign down the road. But on this night, like Ronald Reagan, she showed how a good speech is more important than an encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs in winning public hearts and minds.
Like Obama in 2004, Palin came on stage as a new face and new generation who could energize her party with a fresh new narrative, the story that a political campaign wants to tell about itself.
She was the maverick moose-hunting "hockey mom" who soared from the local PTA to small-town mayor to first-term governor as a fighter against corruption and entrenched old-boy networks in her own party.
But, by the time the convention got rolling, a frenzy of media probes and Internet gossip about her 17-year-old daughter Bristol's pregnancy made her narrative look less like a frontierland saga than an episode of the Jerry Springer show.
Palin is calling for privacy. Not much chance of that. What the mainstream media won't probe, the bloggers will gossip about. She can't display her family proudly as part of her speeches without inviting the world to take a closer look.
Besides, there are significant public policy issues involved here. For example, Palin favors abstinence-only sex education, an approach that apparently didn't work out so well in Bristol's case. At least she is scheduled to marry the baby's daddy. I wish them the best. Parenting is tough enough without also being teenagers and being watching by the world.
Palin's family affairs shifted the convention's focus ironically to social and cultural issues that McCain never has shown much excitement about. Yet, McCain also is in the peculiar position of a moderate who was nominated in spite of his party's conservative base, not because of it. He needs their support and Palin brings it, along with hot-button controversies.
McCain's judgment in picking a relative unknown after a hasty vetting process came into question. Her big speech carried not only her own political future but McCain's, too.
Yet, like Ronald Reagan, himself a former actor and sportscaster, Palin put the communications skills she developed as a Miss Alaska runner-up and a former local television sportscaster to good use. With folksy humor and remarks that were cutting enough to make the Rev. Jesse Jackson wince, she took numerous swipes at Obama, the media and other "Washington elites," even though the White House and Congress have been controlled by her party for most of the last decade.
She also presented a conservative narrative that modernized the Grand Old Party's vision of itself. She touched only lightly on abortion and other social issues that might turn off former Clinton supporters. She probably won't win many of them anyway, but she could slice off quite a few of those whose feelings about social issues are matched or outweighed by their desire to see a female vice president.
Hers was a tough act for McCain to follow and he sounded like it. His maverick streak was back on full display. What other nominee attacks his own party as he accepts its nomination? But he failed to flesh out his boilerplate views with details of how he would fix the problems of subprime mortgages, unpredictable Russian leaders and other big challenges of our times. He talked a lot about his past, but we'll have to wait to hear more about how he would lead the nation's future and how much his running mate would agree.
To quote one of my favorite words from President Bush, don't "misunderestimate" the power of Palin.