Fineman: Previewing Gov. Palin’s Speech

We are about to see a true rarity in politics: an unpredictable, unscripted, scripted moment. Wednesday night, an unknown and barely tested woman from a small town in far away Alaska will make her debut as a would-be global leader in front of the Republican convention, the country and the entire world.

No one has the faintest idea what will happen. These occasions are so rare: when pundits, reporters and insiders alike have no idea how a major figure will perform. The reason for their ignorance is that Gov. Sarah Palin has been a "major figure" for about … five minutes.

It's unprecedented, which is what makes the occasion riveting.

Even as the country watches and judges Palin—first impressions mean everything in politics—the person who really will be on trial Wednesday night is the man who picked her: John McCain. Voters will measure him, and his ability to lead, based on her performance. After all, picking her as his running mate was his first big "presidential" decision.

If you like an underdog, you sort of have to root for her, no matter your leanings. She will either survive and prosper, or crash to earth.

By all accounts Palin is a brave soul—as a politician, mother, hunter and former athlete in basketball. She had better be.

Her history-making selection as Senator McCain's running mate, combined with the circumstances of the choice and her own limited background, makes her speech here a fateful—and potentially memorable—moment in recent American political history.

No one in recent memory has been nominated for vice president with such a thin traditional resume. No woman has ever been nominated by the GOP for the job. No one has spent less time on the national stage before being thrust upon it. No such candidate has been a mother with five kids. The list could go on.

On the floor and in the hallways of the GOP convention, the sentiment was a combination of aggressive defensiveness about her—from evangelicals and other cultural conservatives—to a cautious wait-and-see hopefulness from delegates who found it hard to believe that McCain had chosen Palin with what appeared to be a hurried-up, last-minute vetting process last week.

It was as if the skeptics were saying: OK McCain, we didn't like you that much to begin with, so you had better be right about Sarah Palin. But for the time being, until we hear her speak, we will give you the benefit of the doubt.

Friends of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, speaking not for attribution, were caustic. "She is unqualified for the job and everyone knows it," said one.

Whether or not that is true, it's hard to imagine anyone who would be qualified for the raft of personal and political challenges Palin faces. Over the next months, and all at once, a list of the things she'll need to deal with:

At first glance, this is a little like dropping Peter Pan into the middle of Anbar province. On the other hand, former senator Fred Thompson pointed out last night that Palin may be the only national candidate in history who knows how to field-dress a moose.

It's hard to see how that skill will translate into politics, but we are about to find out.