ST. PAUL, Minn. — Now the American people get a chance to screen Sarah Palin for themselves.
The Alaska governor is scheduled to take the stage at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night — or on Thursday if the schedule changes again — in her first extended chance to tell a national audience who she is and why she should be vice president.
It will be a critical moment for a newcomer to national politics who is unknown to most of the country. She faces a barrage of revelations about her and questions about how carefully Republican presidential candidate John McCain screened her before he stunned the political world — and many of his own supporters — last Friday by naming her as his running mate.
"Palin's speech may be the most important moment at the entire convention," said independent pollster Scott Rasmussen. "Important not just for her, but for the entire McCain campaign."
Voters so far appear split in their first impressions.
Rasmussen found that about half of all voters have a favorable opinion of her and that the country is about evenly divided on whether she's a good choice. Republicans like her a lot, Democrats dislike her a lot and independents are divided, Rasmussen said.
"But Democrats and unaffiliated voters are clearly more skeptical of Palin's candidacy now than they were" in an earlier poll, he said.
Most people want to know more.
In one sign of the curiosity about the 44-year-old Palin, Rasmussen said he found voters signaling that they rank her second after Barack Obama among the top candidates they'd like to meet personally. Republicans would rather meet her than McCain, and Democrats would rather meet her than Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
What will they be looking for when she speaks?
"Basically, she has to be herself," said pollster John Zogby. "If there's anything she brings to the ticket, it's authenticity."
She can introduce herself by talking about her reputation as a reformer and a mother of five while also answering criticism that she's too inexperienced, questions about whether she tried to use her office to have a former brother-in-law fired from a state job, or the revelation that her unmarried teenage daughter is expecting a baby.
"She's certainly not going to be able to create foreign-policy experience," Zogby said. "But she's been in position where she's had to make judgments. She's been a decision maker."
He said she should talk about her family. "She can't finesse that," he said. "She can make the case without being defensive that there are challenges being a mother, that it's a family issue, and that she asks people to please respect our privacy."
Leading up the speech, Republicans worked Tuesday to assure the country that they wholeheartedly support Palin, that questions about her daughter's pregnancy are an invasion of privacy and that criticism of her experience as a small-town mayor is sexist.
"It's demeaning to women," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
At the White House, Press Secretary Dana Perino brushed back suggestions from a reporter that Palin's daughter's pregnancy was a major issue.
"I think that whether or not this is an issue in the campaign is actually more up to the media than it is to any of the politicians, who have all, across the board, said this is a private family matter and that they support the family. So the media is the one that's going to have to decide whether or not this is a story that they want to follow and they want to exploit."
Convention keynoter Rudy Giuliani Tuesday upbraided a reporter who asked whether Palin's daughter's pregnancy was distracting from the convention.
"You should be ashamed of yourself asking that question," the former mayor of New York City said as he left a breakfast with the South Carolina and New Hampshire delegations.
"This is a personal issue that the family is handling in the most appropriate way that it can be handled ... other American families have had to handle this. ... It doesn't have the slightest, the slightest, relationship to a presidential campaign."
All of it was meant to set the stage for a speech that in normal times would be a running mate's one moment in the spotlight until the fall debate — and one now certain to draw more attention than usual.
"It's a unique opportunity to have a conversation with the American public." McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said Tuesday. "It's also a chance to see beyond the media fog of the last 48 hours.
"A vice-presidential nominee's speech is always very important so ... many more people tune in to see those speeches," Davis said. "Other than the debates, when she doesn't have a clear shot, there's not anything more compelling."
(David Lightman contributed to this article from St. Paul.)
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