Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill goes inside the RNC to take the pulse of what delegates think and how Sarah Palin has spiced up an otherwise sedated affair. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: At the Republican National Convention Wednesday night, John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, officially accepted the nomination to run as the Republican’s vice-presidential candidate.
While she received an enthusiastic welcome from the RNC delegates, rumors abound about scandals involving Palin and various members of her family, and reporters are pouring over her history, both personal and professional. This week, the McCain campaign appeared to threaten litigation against the National Enquirer over a story alleging Palin had an affair with one of her husband’s business partners. Palin’s pregnant seventeen-year-old daughter also remains a media focus. Reports continue to emerge on the lack of a thorough vetting of Palin by the McCain team before she was selected.
But what is clear in talking to delegates at the RNC this week is that Sarah Palin has passed the Christian right’s litmus test. And for the GOP base, that may be the most important fact about her.
We sent Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill inside the RNC to take the pulse of what delegates think and how Palin has spiced up an otherwise sedated affair.
GOV. SARAH PALIN: Mr. Chairman, delegates and fellow citizens, I will be honored to accept your nomination for vice president of the United States.
Sarah Palin fired up the base with her address at the Republican National Convention. She was the big act in a lineup that included Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. It was by far the most energetic evening at the RNC to date.
UNIDENTIFIED: If we don’t get it exactly right, we’ll be OK. OK, here we go. Color guard, forward, march!
Sedated, that’s been the general vibe inside the Xcel Center. The energy is markedly different from that of the Democratic National Convention last week in Denver.
UNIDENTIFIED: Rick, with the flags up, will you be able to see the anthem singer?
There are no massive crowds or A-list musicians, but there are a whole lot of cowboy hats and men in suits. Some Republican delegates here in St. Paul refer to Barack Obama’s speech before a crowd of 80,000 in Denver’s Invesco Stadium as his personal Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.
RNC DELEGATE: I think Barack Obama is out for a big show. And what, hopefully, we’re here to communicate to the American people is that it’s not just a big show, but hey, can you do the job? That’s really what it comes down to: can they run the company — the country?
RNC DELEGATE: It’s exciting right now, because we’ve had so many emotional rollercoaster rides so far on this convention with the Hurricane Gustav, and now everything is picking back up, because it has been — you know, property loss, flooding. But we’re here to get fired up for the upcoming elections.
RNC DELEGATE: Is started off a little slow, obviously, because of the hurricane, but the energy is picking up. We’re looking forward to a very exciting election cycle. I think it’s going to be close. We’re all going to work really hard, and I think we’re going to prevail in November.
With the exception of Sarah Palin’s debut Wednesday night, the vibe here at the RNC has been more like one big bridge match, albeit with a multimillion-dollar lighting system and some pretty colorful characters. They wear cowboy hats with glitter American flags, derbies distributed by Fox News. Some even come sporting their own GOP cowboy boots. And one delegate wore a pair of hand-made elephant slippers, representing the GOP’s mascot.
RNC DELEGATE: I made these several years ago for a Republican women’s slipper contest, and I’ve just kept them like this. This is Betsy Ross, and this is Uncle Sam.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Even though the mood here is subdued, you wouldn’t know it from listening to the delegates describe how they see the atmosphere.
RNC DELEGATE: Electrifying!
RNC DELEGATE: Yeah, electrifying!
RNC DELEGATE: It’s electrifying, and it’s history.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Can we look at your hat here?
RNC DELEGATE: Yeah.
JEREMY SCAHILL: So you’ve got “Nobama,” “Redheads for McCain,” “Women for McCain.”
RNC DELEGATE: [inaudible] redheads.
JEREMY SCAHILL: “Redheads for McCain.”
For observers who were in Denver, the respective conventions could not be more different. On the floor of the Xcel Center, we ran into MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who’s a former Republican congressman. He was standing with his Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski.
What about the difference in vibe between here and Denver? I mean, I know we have the whole hurricane situation, but it also just seems a little bit like a morgue in here.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: We were just talking about it. It’s so low-key and muted. It’s smaller.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: And smaller.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: It’s smaller. There’s not a lot of excitement, and we really noticed that the first day we got here. You know, that may just be about a party being in power for eight years and owning Washington. And you know what happens? I mean, when a party controls the White House and Congress for a long enough time period, their party gets a bit less excited about them.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Here, the longest line is for the pretzels.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: There are not a lot of lines here, sorry.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: There are lines. It is so easy — you know, in Denver, it took us what? Sometimes an hour and a half to get in.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: To get anywhere, yeah.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Here, it’s a five-minute wait, tops.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager Howard Wolfson seemed to take some pleasure in the low energy. We caught up with him right before he was preparing to make an appearance on Fox News.
HOWARD WOLFSON: There are fewer delegates than we have in the Democratic Party, so there are fewer people on the floor. There are a lot more people wearing slacks and blazers than there were in Denver. And the carpeting is red, which is also something that we did not have in Denver. So, look, I think Democrats came out of Denver really excited, really fired up. You had, you know, 85,000 people in a stadium. A little bit of a different feel here.
JEREMY SCAHILL: While the energy might be low, Republicans say their spirits are higher than they’ve been for months. Representative Tom Davis angered some Republicans in March when he blamed President Bush for damaging the Republicans’ chances of victory in November.
In March, you were talking about how the President had killed the Republican brand. Is that still your opinion?
REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, there’s no question. I mean, you look at the polling. But John McCain has his own brand, and that’s what’s critical about this election. And as we now shift from Bush to McCain, who will be the face of the party the next two months, I think you’ll see a lot — you’ll see some change in the polls.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Do you think that this is going to have far-reaching implications for the Republican Party, the policies of the last eight years of the Bush administration?
REP. TOM DAVIS: You know, Senator McCain tonight — I mean tomorrow night — and the Governor Palin have an opportunity, I think, to redirect things the way they need to.
JEREMY SCAHILL: We decided to make the rounds through the convention corridors and on the floor to take the pulse of what delegates were thinking, what issues were important to them in this campaign, and what political buttons and pins they were wearing.
RNC DELEGATE: Ladies and gentlemen at home today, we have an array of buttons for the McCain-Palin campaign. Let me show you just a couple that you might be interested in. This is actually one of the most popular ones tonight: “Hottest Vice President Nominee from the Coolest State.”
JEREMY SCAHILL: These buttons and other McCain-Palin gear could be purchased at Republican Mart, a bargain-basement-type operation with non-bargain prices in the corridors of the Xcel Center, where delegates and others dug through big bins of T-shirts with sizes going up to triple-extra-large.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Does that look alright?
RNC DELEGATE: Darling.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah? [inaudible]?
RNC DELEGATE: Oh. Well, no, not really. This goes with everything. Those are all 3XLs, my god.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Is that what they are? Do you have anything other than 3XL?
At the Colorado delegation section, we met Republican delegate, Kimberly Peticolas. At twenty-two, she is by far one of the youngest people at the RNC.
Can we just look at your buttons?
KIMBERLY PETICOLAS: Sure. I’ve got all kinds.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Tell us about some of your favorite buttons.
KIMBERLY PETICOLAS: “Jihad This,” yes, a good button. Well, it has a very good sentiment. It kind of gives my exact feelings. It’s a button of an eagle sticking up its middle finger of its claw, and it says, “Jihad This,” in red. It’s a great button. And yeah, I mean —-
JEREMY SCAHILL: What does it mean? I don’t get it.
KIMBERLY PETICOLAS: You don’t get it? What don’t you get? Well, “Jihad This.” I mean, it’s just like, you know -— obviously I’m not in support of jihad, and I support my troops, and it’s just saying, you know, out with you guys and in with the new. We’re supporting democracy. So —-
JEREMY SCAHILL: And “Gun control is hitting your target.”
KIMBERLY PETICOLAS: Yes, very good button. I’m a shooter myself. I actually do trap shooting, and I have a great shotgun. And I like my shotgun. So, gun control -—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Maybe you’ll go hunting with Sarah Palin.
KIMBERLY PETICOLAS: That’d be fun. I would love that. Yeah.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Do you eat moose, too?
Peticolas told us she would also like to hunt with Vice President Dick Cheney.
KIMBERLY PETICOLAS: I will go vote — or, sorry, I will go shooting with all of them. I think the fact that they go out shooting and that they’re out there —-
JEREMY SCAHILL: But Dick Cheney shot someone in the face.
KIMBERLY PETICOLAS: You know, I actually didn’t -— with Ted Kennedy. I had a button. I don’t think I wore it today, because it was broken, but it said, “I would rather go shooting with Dick Cheney than driving with Ted Kennedy.” And I absolutely believe that.
JEREMY SCAHILL: What about the fact that John McCain doesn’t use the internet?
KIMBERLY PETICOLAS: Well, you know, I haven’t actually heard that, so I won’t comment on that. But, you know, it’s a personal choice.
JUDY CHRIST: I’m a delegate to the state of Oregon for John McCain.
JEREMY SCAHILL: What’s your name?
JUDY CHRIST: My name is Judy Christ.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Are you related to Governor Crist of Florida?
JUDY CHRIST: Spelled different. Mine’s C-H-R-I-S-T. I’m related to the other one.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Which one is that?
JUDY CHRIST: Jesus.
JEREMY SCAHILL: But you pronounce it differently.
JUDY CHRIST: Actually, we pronounce it “Crist.”
JEREMY SCAHILL: And tell us about your button there. What does it say, and what do you mean by it?
JUDY CHRIST: “The life of the party,” and that is for, we are for — we’re pro-life. And so, we hope that people will get that message and will be pro-life.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I’ve seen a lot of buttons. I haven’t seen that one.
JUDY CHRIST: Haven’t seen that one. Isn’t that great? “The life of the party.” We need to have life in the party.
PAM POLLARD: I’m Pam Pollard from Oklahoma City. Of course, in my case, first of all, it’s always pro-life. Everyone has an issue, and that’s mine. I’m pro-life. I am pro-Christian, pro-Bible.
JEREMY SCAHILL: “Beat Obama and Osama,” talk about that button.
PAM POLLARD: It’s not meant to be anything about the Muslim, because I don’t think that Muslims are terrorists. I think that there are a few terrorists that are Muslim. It’s more about the war and about defending. Really it’s about defense. It’s not about war. We hate war. I despise war. I had a family member killed in war. It’s about defense. And I just don’t agree with his policies on the defense of our nation. That’s what it’s about to me.
JEREMY SCAHILL: The big buzz on the floor here in St. Paul is all about Sarah Palin.
RNC DELEGATE: Yeah, outstanding choice. I mean, I’m thrilled to have a woman on this ticket.
RNC DELEGATE: She’s made some tough decisions and never quivered about them. She went forward. But I think we’re all going to learn a little more about her every time she speaks.
RNC DELEGATE: She hit the ground running and didn’t just sit there. I mean, she literally made some major reforms in Alaska’s government. She’s been the commander-in-chief of their National Guard. And I think she’s going to be our first female vice president.
JEREMY SCAHILL: What does your sign say there?
RNC DELEGATE: “Love Sarah.”
JEREMY SCAHILL: Did you make that yourself?
RNC DELEGATE: I did.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And what’s the message you’re sending there? Are you asking her for a date?
RNC DELEGATE: No, not at all. I just want everybody to know that I think she’s the best thing to happen to the Republican Party in years.
RNC DELEGATE: People ask me, are we ready for a lady? And I said, “Well, England had Elizabeth I. They had Catherine the Great in Russia many years ago. And [inaudible]. Why not?”
JEREMY SCAHILL: While there is great excitement over Palin’s selection, particularly from evangelical Christians, there are few more pumped than the Alaskan delegation.
CHRIS NELSON: We only have three electoral votes. We’ve got us one of the smaller delegations here, but we seem to have a lot of new best friends at this convention.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Chris Nelson is the president of the Alaska delegation. He arrived on the floor of the Xcel Center wearing a hardhat and a yellow construction vest, promoting drilling at ANWR.
Have you been stopped on the street by like a construction crew, and they said, “Hey, buddy, you’re late for your shift”?
CHRIS NELSON: No, not yet. Not yet. They keep us on the buses, and we’re going along pretty well. But somebody did ask us to direct traffic. So that’s — we’re saying, “Drill here, drill now,” and on the back it says “Pay Less.”
JEREMY SCAHILL: You want to drill inside of the convention center?
CHRIS NELSON: Listen, we’ve got to start someplace, but we’d rather you drill in Alaska.
JEREMY SCAHILL: How do you feel about Sarah Palin? I bet I could guess.
CHRIS NELSON: We just are absolutely ecstatic. You guys are going to discover about what we have. She’s a straight shooter. She’s enthusiastic. She’s smart. She gets the job done. She’s a great choice.
JEREMY SCAHILL: As we tapped other Republicans for their views on Sarah Palin, one thing was clear: they were circling the wagons to protect her from the media fallout over the revelation that her seventeen-year-old daughter is pregnant, a fact that seems to fly in the face of the family values preached by evangelicals. Some observers were even speculating it could have knocked her off the Republican ticket. On the floor, though, evangelicals spun it a different way.
RNC DELEGATE: On the Palin issue? I think, once again, to continue on what we said about fate, you never know when fate is going to play into your hands. Some people say it’s the almighty God that creates these things. But in this case, now, this issue about her teenage daughter becoming pregnant is, once again, a way, to me, to bring this issue to the limelight. When is the last time this has been discussed at the dinner table?
JEREMY SCAHILL: We met many Republican women who were very enthusiastic about Palin, so much so that they credit her with bringing them back into the game for the general election after being less than ecstatic about John McCain.
KENDAL UNRUH: Kendal Unruh from Castle Rock, Colorado. What am I doing here?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Are you a delegate? Are you here —-
KENDAL UNRUH: I’m a delegate, but I also served on the platform committee.
JEREMY SCAHILL: What does your button say?
KENDAL UNRUH: Let’s see. “Maniacal foaming at the mouth, feverishly fervent Palin nut!” He needed to go after the Reagan Democrats. He got that with Palin. He needed to go after the evangelical conservative base, which was very disenfranchised, that was very mistrustful of McCain and which I am a participant in that. We have gone -—
JEREMY SCAHILL: You’re saying you were mistrustful of McCain.
KENDAL UNRUH: We were. I mean, evangelicals were. I mean, and a lot of my friends were actually wondering whether to sit this one out. If they voted, they were going to be voting against Obama, versus for McCain. And what this selection has done is it has infused oxygen into their bloodstream, because they are calling, saying, “I am so ecstatic! I am so giddy!” And not only are they now not having to worry about actually casting a vote or driving themselves to the polls, but they’re going to work. I mean, people that have never been involved, that I’ve ever known to be involved, are calling, saying, “I’m going to go out and work for him. I’m going to contribute to him.” And they’re going to walk on shattered glass to see this ticket elected. And it’s really the trump card that he needed, not only —-
JEREMY SCAHILL: Had McCain chosen someone other than Palin, you think, or any of the other people rather, you’re saying, Romney or Huckabee?
KENDAL UNRUH: He wouldn’t have gotten this buzz.
JEREMY SCAHILL: One unusual observation this delegate offered was that she believes the fact that Palin has a child with Down’s syndrome could work to the Republicans’ advantage.
KENDAL UNRUH: Sarah Palin’s pick is also going to reach into a disabilities group that we have never actually actively as a party reached into. And as a mother of a child with disabilities, that is an entire -— you know, an entire base group that actually, I believe, just by default, the Democrats have always been able to make inroads into that the Republicans have not. And so, that opens up an entire window of opportunity to be able to get into that community and truly start to reach out and organize. In fact, I was just talking to a gentlemen today that organizes within that community, and we’re all excited. I mean, to make the decision and the choice to go through with a pregnancy when you know that there is a severe handicap with that pregnancy speaks more to her character than, in my opinion, even being governor of a state does.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Joe Scarborough from MSNBC said he thought McCain’s selection of Palin was a political gamble, but one that could well pay off with the base of the Republican Party.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: I will tell you I’ve been shocked by the number of people in the Republican Party that have come up to me and grabbed me in airports and in convention halls and in wherever, restaurants, thrilled about this choice. They love it. And I think they love her, because, you know, the conservative movement basically died over the past eight years. All the things Republicans and conservatives promised to do, like balance the budget, be fiscally responsible, reform Washington, not engage in military adventurism, they broke all their promises. And so, everybody was sort of tarred and feathered with that. And here, you have somebody out of Alaska that nobody knows, but you look and say, OK, well. I think conservatives were looking for a star for the future, and right now they think they’ve found one.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Howard Wolfson dismissed the idea suggested by some pundits that Palin would attract Hillary Clinton supporters simply because she’s a woman.
HOWARD WOLFSON: The overwhelming number of Senator Clinton supporters, who are pro-choice and pro-gun control, are not going to vote for John McCain or Sarah Palin. There may be some around the margins who will give it a second look. We’ll have to see.
JEREMY SCAHILL: One person who seemed particularly excited about Sarah Palin was Les Kinsolving, a longtime conservative journalist known for his over-the-top questions at White House press briefings. We ran into him as he prepared for his radio program in the corridor of the Xcel Center.
LES KINSOLVING: I think one of the most significant things is the choice as vice-presidential nominee of America’s most gorgeous governor. And I think I am looking forward, with great pleasure — I will be covering that night when she debates the senator from Delaware.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And what do you think the scene will be there when she’s standing next to Joe Biden?
LES KINSOLVING: I think she looks a lot better than Joe Biden, but that’s alright. I think she is fast enough and tough enough and clever enough to give him a good run for his money.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Kinsolving has covered political conventions for the past fourteen elections. We asked him if he had heard about the arrest of journalists here at the RNC, including our colleagues from Democracy Now! He seemed curious about the new generation of camera-wielding Indymedia journalists that he’s seen from a distance documenting the protests as he’s made his way in and out of the Xcel Center every day.
LES KINSOLVING: I understand they arrested a few journalists, but they were let off. There are a lot of unusual journalists here.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I saw those guys from Fox News. I cannot believe it!
LES KINSOLVING: You’ve got a good sense of humor. I enjoy you very much, and you, as well.
JEREMY SCAHILL: It seems clear from talking to delegates here at the RNC that the pick of Sarah Palin was intended to bring back in disenfranchised evangelicals who had misgivings about John McCain, particularly on the issue of abortion. While there’s a lot of enthusiasm for Palin, not ever Republican delegate is singing the same tune. It’s not easy to find pro-choice delegates here, but one of them found us.
DOUG BENNETT: You guys should interview me, alright? My name is Doug Bennett. Republicans, we need to modernize in order to come back, right? And what’s happening right now, I really believe we’re focusing too much on social issues. I think that we need to get away from the choice issue and also the gay marriage issue, alright? If we really are the party of less government and smaller government, then we should be staying out of people’s businesses.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Is sounds like you’re actually pro-choice.
DOUG BENNETT: I am pro-choice. I mean, I personally think that you should — look, the biggest thing is this. I’m not going to tell someone what they can and can’t do. We’ve got to get back to our roots. If it’s going to be about less government, alright, we should be focusing on less government. When you’re focusing on those social issues, you’re — that’s big government. You’re getting involved in people’s lives, and that’s wrong.
JEREMY SCAHILL: The crowd at the Xcel Center is overwhelmingly white. The demographics here certainly stand in stark contrast to the scene in Denver last week at the DNC. There are not many African Americans here. But we did talk to one Republican delegate who’s made a bit of history.
JOHN ANDERSON: My name is John Anderson, and I come from Brevard County, Florida. And I’m chairman of the Brevard County Republican Party, the first black chairman. They’ve never had a black chairman.
JEREMY SCAHILL: What is it that draws you to the McCain campaign?
JOHN ANDERSON: I’m driven by John McCain’s patriotism and his experience and his courage.
JEREMY SCAHILL: What do you think of Barack Obama’s candidacy?
JOHN ANDERSON: I think it’s interesting. I think it’s about time. I think it’s part of the evolving of this country. There are a lot of people who are not happy about it, but, you know, this is something that’s been said before: no lie lives forever. And the kind of things that went on like when my grandfather was alive — my grandfather was a slave and was whipped by his owner, and his owner was not black — so, that kind of thing that went on for hundreds of years doesn’t go on anymore.
JEREMY SCAHILL: How long have you been a Republican for?
JOHN ANDERSON: All my life. That’s over sixty years.
JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s a very different party than the one you would have joined sixty years ago.
JOHN ANDERSON: I think so. But I didn’t understand what I was doing sixty years ago. I just did it to get a rise out of my old man. You know what it’s like to join the Republican Party in Harlem?
JEREMY SCAHILL: What drew you initially to the Republican Party?
JOHN ANDERSON: Just to be different, just to be a smart alec. You know how kids are with parents. You know, you come home with a ring in your ear or a tattoo. My old man went to the neighbors and said, “My kid’s a Republican. What have I done wrong?” You know?
JEREMY SCAHILL: The Republican National Convention wraps up on Thursday night with John McCain’s acceptance speech. What’s been in interesting talking to the delegates here at the RNC is how seldom they talk about McCain. Sarah Palin stole the show. While Democrats have accused McCain of putting a small-town mayor a heartbeat from the presidency, evangelicals see it differently. To them, it’s a great chance to place another right-wing born-again Christian and their agenda inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For Democracy Now!, this is Jeremy Scahill, with Jacquie Soohen, in St. Paul.