ST. PAUL — Gov. Sarah Palin could not have asked for a better setting for her solo debut on the national stage: an audience enthralled with her selection as Senator John McCain’s running mate even before she walked on stage to a roar of approval, after three days in seclusion with some of the country’s most skilled political counselors to write, hone and practice her speech.
She drew warm applause as she described her life in Alaska and introduced her family. She heard cheers as she promised an aggressive energy policy that included more drilling. And Ms. Palin ignited a loud round of approving boos as she denounced the news media and “Washington elite” that she suggested had ganged up against her since Mr. McCain announced Friday that she would be the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
But her speech at the Republican National Convention, if delivered with confidence and ecstatically embraced in the hall, may prove to have been the easy part.
From here, Ms. Palin moves into a national campaign where she will have to appeal to audiences that are not necessarily primed to adore her. She will have to navigate far less controlled campaign settings that will test not only her political skills but also her knowledge of foreign and domestic policy. And she must convince the country she is prepared to be vice president at a time when the definition of that job has been elevated to the status of governing partner — something voters might have been reminded of Wednesday by images of Vice President Dick Cheney embarking on a mission to war-torn Georgia.
“The people who are in the hall — they’ve already been sold, they are the choir,” said John C. Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri. “Now the question for her and for McCain and for everybody who is inside the hall is how to clarify their message to the American people.”
But what is that message? Her speech left no doubt that she would take on the traditional role of a ticket’s No. 2, attacking the top of the other ticket, which she did repeatedly and with gusto.
“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities,” Ms. Palin said, a slash of the sword at Senator Barack Obama’s job as a young man working on antipoverty programs in Chicago.
The remark capped three days in which Republicans have sought to say it is Mr. Obama, and not this first-term governor from a small-population state, who does not have the experience to be president.
The question is whether someone who is so little known and has what even Republicans describe as a scant résumé has the authority to make those attacks credible — unlike, say, her counterpart on the Democratic side, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a veteran of foreign and domestic policy who attacked Mr. McCain last week. It is also unclear if the sharp and often mocking tone of her attacks — combined with her general avoidance of such key issues as the economy — might turn off swing voters across the country.
“It’s more difficult with someone of her background to go on the attack than it would be for Joe Biden,” said Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. “Before she attacks someone, she has to get out there and define herself.”
Clearly, her big task on Wednesday and in the days ahead was to drive home the image the McCain campaign has sought to attach to this unexpected pick: the corruption-fighting governor from outside Washington, a socially conservative mother of five who can easily connect with working-class Americans in a way that Mr. Obama has so far had trouble doing. She scorned the trappings of elitism — she talked about driving herself to work, and how she put the Alaska governor’s plane up for sale on eBay — as she signaled that she would serve as Mr. McCain’s ambassador to Americans who think the government has lost touch with their values and needs. She went as far to compare herself to a haberdasher from Missouri who became vice president and later president, Harry S. Truman.
The problem for Ms. Palin is that that story has been tripped up by disclosures about her professional and personal life, enough so that at least until Wednesday, she had become a bigger figure at this convention than Mr. McCain.
In her speech, she tried to address that by belittling what she disparaged as the Washington elite and the news media — a sure-fire applause line at these kinds of events — and invoking her own experience as a reformer. Yet she made no effort to say what she might do as a vice president, no small question when her lack of a national or international portfolio suggests she would not slide easily into the kind of full partner role enjoyed by Mr. Cheney and Al Gore.
“The Gore-Cheney series of vice presidencies have changed the nature of the job,” said Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado and a friend of Mr. McCain. “What McCain has done is to try to revert to the 19th-century model, early-20th-century model of vice president — the ‘job isn’t worth a warm pitcher of spit’ model, which means you don’t do anything.”
“But we don’t live in that kind of world anymore,” Mr. Hart said. And, he said, that is a particularly relevant question given Mr. McCain’s age — 72 — and health problems. “I’m sure John thinks he can live forever, or at least for eight years,” Mr. Hart said.
In an interview a month ago on CNBC, Ms. Palin went so far as to disparage the job of vice president, saying, “What is it exactly that the V.P. does every day?”
The one role she is going to play — and one that Mr. Cheney played — is helping to motivate the right wing of her party. The uproarious applause that capped her speech left little doubt that she had already moved easily into the job — a big lift for Mr. McCain, who has always had difficulty persuading social conservatives to trust him.
The question for the governor of Alaska, as she heads out across the country on her first national campaign, is whether she can do for Mr. McCain in a general election what she did last night with this audiences of delegates at the Xcel Energy Center.