Live from RNC: How Can McCain Top Last Night?

9/4, 2:05 pm PDT

On my way out the door to the Xcel Center. Here's a few thoughts in general about the convention and tonight's program.

The security at the site has been extraordinary but extremely well organized and run so that delegates have not had long waits to get in. It is very intimidating (as I'm sure it's designed to be) but everyone is friendly enough. I even got a TSA fellow to smile and talk to me.

No complaints about the thousands of volunteers helping inside and outside the arena. Those inside are generally knowledgeable about where things are and those outside are friendly and helpful, directing thousands to the shuttle buses to take attendees back to their hotels.

Last night, it took about an hour to get to my hotel because the bus driver got lost. I'm afraid I almost moved her to tears when, after traveling in circles for about 45 minutes, I said in a loud voice that she should let us off at the next freeway exit and call us cabs. She was from Kentucky and the cop was from some small town in Minnesota and didn't know the city either.

But these kinds of snafus have been kept to a minimum. Besides my previous rant complaining about how they are treating bloggers, I would say the organizers here have done a first-rate job.

Tonight's program may cause a few TV viewers to pop some bennies in order to stay awake until John McCain comes on around 9:15 CT. After a dynamite lineup last night of Rudy, Mitt, and the Huckster, tonight's snooze-a-thon will feature that dynamic orator Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota and loser in the veepstakes; Senator Lindsey Graham, who may set a record for spouting the most "southernisms" in a nationally televised speech; and a good public servant but someone no one will confuse with being a brilliant speaker, Tom Ridge.

The reason those three gentlemen were on last night with Sarah Palin is pretty obvious. John McCain is no Cicero himself and any of his former opponents who spoke last night might cause McCain to suffer by comparison.

But it is not so much the way John McCain will deliver his speech -- although that might be a problem -- as it will be what he says. McCain's style is to use these beautifully crafted, elegantly conceived, long drawn-out sentences that are perfectly logical but perfectly deadly when giving a speech before 20,000 partisans. Unless he alters his preferred method and shortens his prose, the crowd will be walking all over his applause lines. This will be bad TV and distract from the message.

But it is what he says that will engage the attention of the media and delegates. Here, I believe McCain has an excellent case for his kind of reform that he can lay before the nation and paint a stark contrast with Obama's "change and reform" message.

McCain's reform ideas are rooted in the old progressive, "good government" notions of the early part of the 20th century. No comparison of McCain and TR as human beings intended, but you could probably draw a straight line intellectually from Teddy Roosevelt to McCain. McCain wants a smaller government but a better government. Instead of busting trusts, McCain wants to bust lobbyists -- a popular and consequential notion. Nor does he want to curtail lobbying itself, rather the influence that lobbyists have on campaigns.

Lobbying itself cannot be stopped. It is a First Amendment right to seek a "redress of grievances." But it is the practice of earmarks and special plums snuck into legislation at the 11th hour so that lawmakers can curry favor with lobbyists and thus receive the bounty they bestow in cash for campaigns that makes the way it is currently practiced so pernicious.

Along with some other reforms like fixing the budget and streamlining government operations, McCain has a specific, attractive program to put before the American people tonight. In asking whether he is up to the challenge tonight, I have stopped trying to low-ball anything to do with John McCain.

Anyone who can survive five years of torture and confinement and come out sane has some very special qualities that place him above the ordinary.

9/04, 11:30 am PST

She walked out on the stage, a diminutive figure made smaller by the gigantic noise that rose from the floor of the convention. The sound washed over her, wrapping her in a protective cocoon of love and admiration, as if her supporters could deflect the political bric-a-bracs being hurled her way by the sheer volume of cacophony they could produce. Delegates were mad. Mad at the media, at the Democrats, at all the incendiary, baseless smears and outright falsehoods thrown at the vice presidential nominee over the last few days. They were letting her know the only way they knew how that it was alright now -- she was home and among friends.

No one knows what Sarah Palin was expecting when she walked out to greet the thousands of party faithful last night in St. Paul. Her face betrayed no special pleasure or emotion when she walked to the podium. Her demeanor businesslike, she faced the screaming, cheering, crowd with a pleasant smile -- and for 4 minutes 20 seconds tried to begin her speech.

There were a lot of "jumpers" in that crowd -- people so excited they would actually leave their feet and jump for joy as they cheered. When John F. Kennedy was running for president, speechwriter Theodore Sorenson and future aide Kenny O'Donnell played a game during motorcades involving who could count the most jumpers as the limo drove by. It would have been easy last night. People were jumping, bouncing on the balls of their feet,  and waving placards and signs that said "Palin Power" and "Hockey Moms for Palin." The very air was shaking until Palin finally got the multitude to quiet down long enough to tell them that yes, she accepted the nomination for vice president -- the first woman, the first Alaskan, and the first ex-mayor of Wasilla to be so honored.

That started the ovation all over again and, this time, Palin allowed herself one of those 100,000 watt smiles that lit up the Xcel Center like a bank of floodlights at a movie premiere. When they quieted down again and Palin got into her speech, it became immediately apparent that this address was going to be something different. Whether it was because she was such a fresh, new face on the political scene or because of her unique background as a product of small town America, the "speech" -- if you want to call it that -- immediately morphed into something that politicians don't do: an engaging and disarming  conversation with the American people.

This was not political oratory in any sense of the word. It was two-way communication. Rather than elevate the soul, Palin's words and delivery grabbed the heart and engaged the mind and wouldn't let go. Rather than soar, her words hit home -- sometimes forcefully, sometimes gently, but always understandable, approachable, and emotionally engaging.

Her style is as unusual as I've seen in all my years of covering politics. Her reference to Harry Truman may be a clue. Plain Sarah and Plain Speaking Harry Truman have the same rhythms in the voices, similar cadences in the way they speak. These linguistic idiosyncrasies were not developed on the streets of a big city or the sprawl of the suburbs. They are the natural by-products of small town life -- little artifice and less art. When she got ready to zing Obama or the Democrats, she'd get a special lilt in her voice -- like a gossip ready to dish dirt at an informal coffee klatch. Her nose would scrunch up, her eyes would alight with a mischievous glint, and with a half snarl, she'd drop a bomb on enemy headquarters.