It's GOP's world; elitists just live in it

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Snowmobiles are good. NASCAR is very good. Football metaphors about God are better. "Sam's Club Republicans" are the salt of the American earth. Hollywood, the media and academics are suspect at best, subversive at worst. Though not as bad as European ideas.

And too much eloquence? That smacks of intellectualism, which smacks of elitism, which is exactly what Republicans insist that Barack Obama's Democrats represent - the very forces that are holding the United States back from becoming the nation it is destined to be.

"It's not about talking pretty," former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Thursday night, the final night of the Republican National Convention. He paused, then jabbed his finger forcefully and used an informal contraction. "It's about talkin' straight."

If the Reagan years launched Republicans' journey back into the hearts of regular America, the McCain-Palin campaign of 2008 brings it home. Everyday Americans, take heed: The Republican Party stands behind you and your way of life, and John McCain and Sarah Palin are your kind of people.

With a slate of speeches that were extraordinary in their subtexts, the GOP found the cultural voice it had misplaced through eight years of intense focus on national security and the aftermath of 9/11. A cast of heavy hitters from Rudy Giuliani to Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham to Sarah Palin, delivered nothing less than a populist manifesto for 21st-century America.

"It's the small-town, rural, down-to-earth `real Americans' vs. the urban sophisticates," says James Broussard, a Republican and a historian at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

Cloaked in the civil language of suit-and-tie politics are code words for the Republican vision of what life in America should be and how to get there - one that differs deeply from what the Democrats want to do if Obama wins.

Since the early 1980s, Republicans have been far better than Democrats at this cultural imagineering. In the wake of a post-1970s recession and national weariness, the GOP realized that people who wouldn't vote with their pocketbooks would get behind a vision of an America that made sense to them.

That produced the Reagan Revolution, which was about back-to-basics Americanness as much as it was economics. It produced the family values platform of the 1990s. And now, it is producing a 21st-century hybrid - a rebel-in-the-exurbs reboot that manages to be simultaneously inclusive and exclusionary, that is equal parts Abraham Lincoln, Toby Keith and Sam Walton.

Consider the mosaic of cultural ideals assembled through the following quotes culled from Republican convention speakers this week:

-Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee: "Last night, my NASCAR dad fell in love with Alaska's hockey mom."

-Former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs: "God's our head coach. Would he put us here without a game plan? Absolutely not."

-Ex-McCain rival No. 1, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: "(In) my hometown of Hope, Ark., the three sacred heroes were Jesus, Elvis and FDR, not necessarily in that order."

-Ex-McCain rival No. 2, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani: "We, the people - the citizens of the United States - get to decide our next president. Not the media, not Hollywood celebrities, not anyone else."

-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: "John McCain and Sarah Palin connect with Sam's Club voters. They get it."

-And vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in one of many statements aimed right at this accelerating narrative: "I'm just one of many moms who will say an extra prayer each night for our sons and daughters going into harm's way."

Not since the 1980 election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan have the cultural lines been drawn so distinctly and the divisions cast so sharply.

"It's the apotheosis of what's been going on since the Reagan presidency. Populism has shifted from the Democratic to the Republican party - ordinary folks vs. the establishment and the elite," says Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College.

"The difference between the mind-molders and ordinary people, I think, has become sharper and starker with each decade," says Kreeft, author of "How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis."

Democrats, who have articulated a vision for America built upon rejection of the Bush years, have built a compelling narrative in 2008, too. But they have yet to puncture the populism of the evolving Republican message.

Palin, in particular, placed the cultural divisions in stark relief during her acceptance speech Wednesday night. Forceful and sometimes biting, deploying code words designed to connect with voters' life experiences, she crystallized the debate in one fell swoop.

She also cast Alaska much as Republicans have cast the South in recent years: the home of hunters, fishermen, burgers ground from game, small-town folks and, by extension, the soul of American authenticity. The message: Sarah Palin isn't just like the rest of America. In many ways, she embodies America.

It played well the day after her speech. "The right wing is coming home," said one-time conservative presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, now an MSNBC analyst. "From the fever swamps and forests, they're all coming home to Sister Sarah."

Obama was unimpressed. "This is what they do. They don't have an agenda to run on," he said during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania. And Democrats immediately turned to dismantling Palin's image with sarcasm. "She doesn't just support killing animals from helicopters," Gloria Steinem wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "she does it herself."

Anti-elitism is nothing new in American politics. It's been around since Andrew Jackson propelled himself to the presidency in 1828 by persuading voters he wasn't like those hose-wearing, ponytailed, eastern-educated founding fathers.

Jackson was a Democrat, and for decades his was the party most identified with the regular guy. That began to fade in 1952, when Republicans damaged Democrat Adlai Stevenson irreparably by labeling him and his supporters as eggheads.

Now, 20 years after liberal was used as an epithet against Michael Dukakis, Republicans control that terrain.

The trick for them this fall is to tailor the cultural message so it continues to excite their conservative base while remaining moderate enough to entice centrists who could help the party prevail in November.

On Thursday, Blackburn called Palin "a voice that spoke with the accent of real America." Unless Democrats can seize some of that, they risk ceding to Republicans the brush that paints the picture of what our culture looks like - whether it really is that way or not.

"The Republicans are doing exactly what they need to do - make the other guy the issue," says Broussard, who is attending the convention.

But if the small towns go red and the big cities blue, the land between is the battleground of 2008, the newest slice of American culture, with evolving needs and political alignments still coming together. "The question," Broussard says, "is who gets the suburbs?" And there, for now, no one knows which vision of America will prevail.