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First thoughts: America, meet Sarah Palin

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
ST. PAUL, MN -- And we thought Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would give the most highly anticipated convention speech. Well, that was before McCain selected the first-term governor of Alaska to be his running mate and before the country found out about the Troopergate firing scandal (which NBC's Lisa Myers reported on TODAY), her past advocacy of earmarks and the Bridge to Nowhere (both of which McCain has railed against on the trail), her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, and now the Washington Post scoop that McCain's chief vetter only conducted a lengthy interview with her the day before Palin was selected. The McCain camp is pushing back hard against the notion that she wasn't vetted properly. "This vetting controversy is a faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee for Vice President of the United States who has never been a part of the old boys network that has come to dominate the news establishment in this country," chief strategist Steve Schmidt told First Read in a statement. "Sen. McCain picked his governing partner after a long and thorough search. Gov. Palin looks forward to addressing the nation and laying out the fundamental choice this election represents for the American people."

*** Whose party is this? Last night had the feel of a party that was still trying to find its groove. Tonight, that will change when the GOP rock star of St. Paul -- Palin -- takes the stage. And judging by the reception she gets, there could be a very real debate on the following question: Whose Republican Party is this -- John McCain's or Sarah Palin's? Talk to the GOP delegates here and it's no contest. This is Palin's party; McCain's just the surprisingly cool guy who "got it" more than these folks thought.

*** On the defensive: Early this morning, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds announced that the campaign today "will launch a forward leaning effort to counter the shameless smears that have prevailed during Governor Palin's introduction to the American voter." Those activities include: having Rudy Giuliani defend Palin on TODAY and the network morning shows, airing a new TV ad comparing Palin's executive experience versus Obama's (by the way, what's McCain's executive experience?), holding a press conference by Joe Lieberman and Eric Cantor to denounce an Obama campaign accusation that Palin was a Pat Buchanan supporter, and putting female McCain aides and surrogates out for interviews "to demand better treatment for Gov. Palin's family." It's been five days since McCain picked Palin and the campaign still appears to be playing catch up regarding all things Palin. So in its attempt to deal with all things Palin, the campaign is creating straw men regarding attacks on her. They want all attacks to be seen through the prism of "sexism" (see Laura Bush) or simply as "smears" (see above). This can be an effective strategy. Arguably, both the Clinton and Obama campaigns, at least via surrogates, would sometimes raise the issue of sexism or racism in order to deflect a specific line of attack. That said, the McCain campaign has to be frustrated that after five days, they are more on the defensive today than they were on Day One. It's become clearer and clearer that she was vetted at the last minute. Maybe the vet was thorough, but it was still done at the last minute -- which meant the campaign had no time to road test her, a la Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney, Meg Whitman, or Carly Fiorina.

*** Last night: In the hall, the big winner last night was Fred Thompson. He had the right mix of red meat and McCain biography that sold well. But did it come across as well on TV? (There were a lot of empty seats in the background.) It was a long speech by Thompson standards, but it also had more spark than he showed during his own campaign. As for Lieberman, his presence in network primetime was what the campaign wanted. While us Beltway types may know Lieberman has been a McCain guy for some time, it may have been a surprise for the casual observer to see Al Gore's running mate endorsing McCain and whacking Obama. (As NBC's Chris Donovan reminds us, Lieberman had promised not to attack Obama. ''I would not go to speak to attack Barack Obama,'' he told the New York Times in July. ''I would go to say why I'm supporting John McCain.'') The speech itself was flat in the hall. Then again, Joe's never been a great speaker, even as he enjoys trying to be a modern day Henny Youngman.

*** Rudy, Rudy, Rudy: Prior to Palin's speech tonight comes the keynote address from Rudy Giuliani. As it turns out, the former New York mayor spoke at Bush's convention in New York four years ago. It was a speech that focused almost exclusively on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "[I]t was here in 2001," he said, "in the same lower Manhattan, that President George W. Bush stood amid the fallen towers of the World Trade Center, and he said to the barbaric terrorists who attacked us, 'They will hear from us.'" Of course, those remarks came just three years after 9/11; it's now been seven years since that tragic day. A lot else has transpired during that time, including Giuliani's own failed presidential bid, which was marred by Bernie Kerik (whom Rudy referred to in that '04 speech), his views on abortion, and his strategy to bypass Iowa and New Hampshire. Indeed, after spending more $60 million, Giuliani won just ONE delegate. No doubt Rudy will wow the crowd tonight, but his speech -- like Hillary's on Tuesday -- will also spur what-might-have-been thoughts for the former mayor.

*** The Democratic response: Obama strategist Robert Gibbs and DNC adviser Jamal Simmons hold a conference call with reporters at 9:30 am ET.

*** On the trail: McCain arrives here in St. Paul early in the afternoon and later attends a welcome rally in Minneapolis. Obama, in Ohio, holds an economic town hall in Philadelphia before stopping by a BBQ in Dillonvale. Biden remains in Florida, where he hits an economic roundtable in Ft. Myers and then a town hall in Sarasota. And Michelle Obama is in Los Angeles, where she addresses an LGBT reception and then raises money.

Countdown to the first presidential debate: 23 days
Countdown to the vice presidential debate: 29 days
Countdown to the second presidential debate 34 days
Countdown to the third presidential debate: 42 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 63 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 140 days
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