ST. PAUL, Minn. - In the five days since she was introduced as John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin has been defined by news media accounts of her views, her family and her brief record as Alaska governor.
Now it's her turn to define herself.
Palin is earning high marks from Republican politicians and the adulation of the party's delegates. Most share her socially conservative opinions and like having a woman who is balancing a large family and successful career on their national ticket.
McCain and his campaign portray her as a youthful partner to a seasoned maverick. They like her fearlessness in challenging her party establishment in Alaska and make the case that her decision-making role as a government executive trumps the purely legislative background of the Democratic ticket.
Palin slipped from public view after making her debut with McCain on Friday and appearing at his side over the weekend.
She's been in the Twin Cities area since Labor Day, officials said, rehearsing the defining speech of her career, an address tonight to the convention delegates and millions of voters at home.
Other than a campaign-released photo of her with first lady Laura Bush and McCain's wife, Cindy, she's not been seen publicly. A long-scheduled appearance in St. Paul at a gala reception of anti-abortion Republicans was canceled by the McCain campaign, disappointing delegates and, according to a well-placed source, angering the main organizer, longtime activist Phyllis Schlafly.
By keeping a low profile, Palin has built suspense for her emergence as a solo attraction in the bright lights of the Xcel Energy Center. Meantime, questions continue to swirl about just how thoroughly she was vetted by McCain's campaign before he picked her last week.
Doubts have been aired in news media accounts about her commitment to ending pork-barrel spending. National attention has been focused on a state investigation into whether a family dispute influenced her decision to fire the state's public safety commissioner. The governor and her husband, Todd, were forced to issue a statement, hours before the convention opened Monday, acknowledging that their unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.
This evening is her chance to change the subject. Before the biggest audience she's ever faced, she gets to tell her story in her own words.
It is her "national unveiling," as one of John McCain's closest friends, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, put it.
Along with many others, both inside and outside the McCain camp, Graham expects her to dazzle.
"My gut is that she'll do very, very well, given how she's done thus far," he said.
That's as safe a bet as possible in a presidential campaign year with seemingly boundless capacity to surprise.
Palin has performed almost flawlessly so far in public appearances with the man who plucked her from the continent's farthest reaches and presented her as America's next vice president. McCain, who seems as energized by her as others in his party, has been cheering Palin on and planting appreciative kisses on her cheek when she finishes speaking.
Confident and assured in front of a crowd, Palin appears more polished than many seasoned politicians, including McCain, when it comes to using a prompter, the essential speechmaking tool that allows candidates to read their text without ever glancing down at notes.
She makes it look easy, in part, because of communications skills developed years ago as a local TV sports anchor.
According to Rick Davis, the McCain campaign manager, the timing for her speech could not be better. He calls it the most important one she'll deliver in the '08 campaign.
"It gives Governor Palin a unique opportunity to have a conversation with the American public," he said, "and a wonderful opportunity to bring her into focus."
The stakes are high: In the latest national Gallup tracking poll, McCain is running eight points behind Democrat Barack Obama, who hit 50 percent yesterday for the first time. Those numbers suggest that the modest lift in the polls that McCain got from picking Palin might have subsided.
Gallup also measured initial public reaction to her selection and found that voters considered Palin less qualified than any vice presidential candidate since Dan Quayle to serve as president if it became necessary.
Republican politicians say she needs to convince voters that she has the stature to be at the top of an administration in Washington.
Yesterday, McCain's campaign was continuing to issue news releases defending Palin's record as chief executive of her state. Still, she has less national experience than any presidential or vice presidential candidate in decades.
She was sworn in as Alaska's first female governor 21 months ago. Before that, she served two terms as mayor and two terms on the City Council of Wasilla, her hometown of fewer than 9,000 people. She has also chaired the state's energy board.