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Back on script

Thompson shines as the convention gets going after being overshadowed by Hurricane Gustav.

September 03, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

Forced by Hurricane Gustav to pare down the first day of their national convention and rattled by breaking news about John McCain's running mate, Republicans took advantage of Gustav's passing to regroup.

As news anchors hustled back to St. Paul, Minn., organizers essentially turned Day Two of the convention into Day One. First Lady Laura Bush introduced her husband's speech via satellite, and former Sen. Fred Thompson replaced Rudolph W. Giuliani as keynote speaker. Then Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who spent much of his career as a Democrat, endorsed McCain.

Ditching Giuliani for Thompson may prove to be the most brilliant political move of the campaign. With his deep rumbling voice and his TV-tested "jest plain folks" manner, Thompson was the ideal speaker to take on the two-pronged task at hand: address the mounting concerns surrounding Sarah Palin and return the spotlight to McCain. As much as anyone could accomplish this with a speech, Thompson delivered.

No one in the party is better suited to tout the woodsy charm of Palin -- the only vice presidential candidate in history, Thompson asserted, to know how to properly field-dress a moose. With a jocular yet pointed harrumph, he dismissed criticism of her qualifications as the whinings of snotty media pundits and the ever-irritating left.

In Thompson's hands, the story of McCain's career as a soldier and prisoner of war has never been so moving. When, toward the end of his speech, Thompson noted that McCain cannot raise his hands above shoulder level, cannot salute the flag for which he has sacrificed, it is hard to imagine that even the staunchest Democrats remained dry-eyed.

That was a tough act for Lieberman to follow. At first, his message of bipartisanship fell flat: His declarations that we are all Americans sailed into a mostly silent hall.

Lieberman was not there to promote harmony, however, but to prove that there were living, breathing Democrats -- and former Democrats -- who supported McCain. Speaking directly to his "fellow Democrats," Lieberman called on voters to rise above party and vote for the man he considers best for the job.

The "rise above party politics" may have flatly contradicted all that went before it, but the vote for John McCain bit brought down the house.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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