ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Sarah Palin took the stage Wednesday night, the reaction of conventioneers went beyond mere appreciation. It was gratitude.
And relief that the first Republican woman on a presidential ticket wasn't going to let them down. No one was going to be embarrassed by John McCain's maverick pick.
Several days of brutal scrutiny leading up to her acceptance speech had given them cause to wonder. Ethics questions about her possible involvement in trying to get a former brother-in-law fired are legitimate. So are critiques of her performance as a self-professed tax-cutter and government reformer. But attacks on her family have been blistering and over the top.
Thus, much of the off-mic talk in St. Paul the past few days centered on whether she was up to the fight. Would she be able to make it through? Would she crumble? Did Palin have the stuff to withstand the bludgeoning scrutiny?
Awaiting her performance reminded me of the day 13 years ago when Shannon Faulkner became the first female cadet at South Carolina's The Citadel. Agree or not with the politics that propelled her there, women wanted her to be at least competent. To be fit. To make them proud.
We know the history of that disappointment. I suspect that even many Democrats would confess to a private hope that Palin would do well. There aren't enough women in high places yet for us to enjoy a first-woman's stumble, no matter what the arena.
What she showed was strength, conviction, determination, confidence, a willingness to rumble and fearlessness. No caribou caught in the headlights, she.
Whatever conclusions the punditry might draw from Palin's remarks, we can be fairly certain that Middle America felt nothing but redemption and salvation. Dozens of e-mails in my inbox confirm as much. "Pumped" is the word I keep hearing.
Palin's role in this election is as groundbreaking as Barack Obama's for the obvious reasons. Both have validated the best instincts of their parties and our nation. But there's more. Both also seem to be filling a need that isn't specifically about leadership or qualifications for office.
When Obama fills a stadium with tens of thousands of admirers, you can be sure that part of the draw is the audience's sense of being part of something new and extraordinary. They want to be part of the Next New Thing and people feel elevated in his presence.
Similarly, when Palin brought Republican conventioneers to their feet, they weren't just applauding their vice presidential nominee; they were applauding themselves. They were proud of her, sure, but they were also proud of themselves. Why, they had nominated a (BEG ITAL)woman(END ITAL)!
It is delightful to feel good about oneself and Palin delivered energy where spirits had flagged and inspired a vision that had become blurred.
Glancing around the convention center in St. Paul, it was not hard to see that the GOP is in dire need of a transfusion. I've been to retirement villages that had fewer gray hairs and to Old South parties that were more diverse. For whatever reason, the Republican Party has not been able to attract young people or minorities in numbers that reflect the mainstream America they purport to represent.
Is it the message or the messenger? Both -- and Republicans know it. Behind closed doors around the Twin Cities, talk focused on the need for new templates, new models. Republicans have to communicate that they, too, care about the issues Democrats have claimed as their own -- education, health and the environment. They need new ideas and new -- younger -- faces to deliver the message.
Voila. Enter Palin.
Some have criticized McCain for cynically selecting a woman only to try to attract former Hillary Clinton supporters. Obviously, there's some truth to that. Being a woman is part of Palin's appeal and running mates are often picked in hopes of securing a particular state or demographic.
But Palin brings more to the ticket than the possibility of a few female voters. She has animated voters who had little enthusiasm for the race. She has given them the very thing Democrats have been enjoying the past several months: hope and change.
That's potent medicine. It also should come with a warning label: "May cause delusions and a false sense of power."