Palin speech aims to give RNC 'shot in the arm'

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave the Republican National Convention something that it needed on Wednesday night: a shot in the arm.

It’s not that there isn’t enthusiasm here, but the GOP gathering comes just a week after the Democrats met in Denver at an event of largely masterful stagecraft and timing whose climax was a speech by Barack Obama, the first African-American presidential candidate on a major party ticket, before some 84,000 people.

Comparisons are inevitable.

Palin’s speech gave the event more mojo, but until then it had been a pretty tame affair. On Tuesday, empty seats were visible in primetime TV coverage — a major no-no to anyone who has ever produced the Academy Awards — as former Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. Joseph Lieberman addressed the delegates. Ushers offered those sitting in upper tiers the chance to sit closer to the stage, but few wanted to move into the middle of the proceedings.

Contrast that to the frenzy at the Pepsi Center last week, when those who weren’t parked in their seats at least two hours before the featured speakers appeared were usually out of luck. Their access to the auditorium was sealed off.

There are still parties aplenty, but usually sans the long velvet rope lines that wrapped around the block at Denver nightspots.

And there’s no doubt that this is a different kind of crowd. First Avenue, the Minneapolis venue made famous in the 1980s by glam star Prince, on Monday hosted perhaps its biggest collection ever of blue-blazered Republican patrons, delegates who were attending a night of Big Easy music sponsored by the Friends of New Orleans.

A party a block away at Bar Fly on Hennepin Avenue drew a hipper crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings, packed in the venue for a show called “Political Chicks a Go-Go” that was hosted by Lifetime and Rock the Vote. John Rich performed “Walk the Line,” but the biggest draw was John McCain’s 23-year-old daughter, blogger Meghan.

Other contrasts: Bono’s One Campaign and the Recording Industry Assn. of America hosted Kanye West at its party in Denver; on Wednesday, the entertainment at the Epic Event Center was Daughtry. The Creative Coalition hosted the Black Eyed Peas at its Denver bash; in Minneapolis, it was the Charlie Daniels Band.

“The energy difference between Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul is palpable,” said Anne Schroeder Mullins, who writes the Shenanigans column for right-leaning multimedia outlet the Politico, adding that the ease of getting into parties is nevertheless “a breath of fresh air.”

Her column on Wednesday included this blind quote, from a Republican attendee who told her, “This is the worst convention in years! There’s just a lack of excitement.”

The enthusiasm gap is evident in Gallup polls, as well as viewership. According to Nielsen, overall viewing of the convention was 4.3 million viewers shy of the number who watched the second night of the Democratic National Convention and 600,000 lower than the number for day two of the 2004 GOP gathering.

On its first full night of proceedings, the GOP tried to inject the drama of Lieberman, an independent Democrat addressing a convention of the opposing party, along with the red-meat badgering of Thompson. In the hall, each drew numerous standing ovations at some of their key lines. But on TV, it still didn’t quite match up to the second-night anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s speech.

The comparisons are perhaps unfair given that the convention itself was truncated, with major figures like President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger forced to cancel because of Hurricane Gustav and a state budget crisis, respectively. Up-and-comers like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also have been no-shows due to the weather.

The GOP also has competition. It’s safe to say that the raw enthusiasm on display at the Xcel, with regular chants of “USA, USA,” couldn’t come close to the more frenzied atmosphere of Ron Paul’s rally at Minneapolis’ Target Center on Tuesday, with former Gov. Jesse Ventura drawing a big jolt when he suggested that he would run for president in 2012.

There’s also the spectacle of National Guard troops roaming the streets of St. Paul, and the images of protesters breaking windows and riot police spraying tear gas have earned spots in local news coverage almost as often as the convention itself, with some 300 being arrested so far.

Perhaps most unfair of all is to compare the star quotient, with gossip columnists professing themselves bored at the lack of famous faces to interview. Singer Rachael Lampa, who delivered an “American Idol”-like performance in the hall on Tuesday night, in an apparent bid for the youth vote, had some journos scrambling to determine just who she was.

Those in the media who endured the hassles of Denver and viewed St. Paul with a dose of dread have been pleasantly surprised by speedy security lines, easier access to pressroom facilities and a less cavernous arena that allows for better viewing of the convention floor.

Despite a few glitches, the Republicans’ much-vaunted skills at organization have been on display throughout the week. The proceedings on the convention floor move at a quicker pace. For one, there are no gaps between the assortment of speakers and short films. At the Democratic convention, a house band would entertain the crowd with Motown between those on the podium, which made for some lengthy waits.

It’s also difficult to make judgments about energy levels without comparing them to GOP gatherings of the past, and Republican strategist Mike Murphy said that the “convention enthusiasm is very high, but it is always high.”

Palin’s speech was expected to inject a dose of freshness into the proceedings, as she’s a new political figure on the scene and an emerging celebrity in her own right. Rudy Giuliani was also to speak Wednesday.

But there’s a difference, Murphy cautioned, between revving up party activists in the hall and what happens after the convention, when the candidates have to appeal to swing voters. He had concerns that the convention was appealing too much to the base so far.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more