Sarah Palin, the Republicans' surprise choice for vice president, took direct aim at her detractors Wednesday as she reached out to a nation eager to hear her life story.

"I'm not a member of the permanent political establishment," said Palin, claiming her spot as the first woman on a GOP ticket for the White House. "And I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.

"But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators," she continued, to lusty boos directed at the press covering the Republican National Convention. "I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion -- I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this great country."

Palin also launched a spirited attack against Democratic nominee Barack Obama:

"Listening to him speak," she said, "it's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform -- not even in the [Illinois] state Senate. ...

"My fellow citizens, the American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of personal discovery."

In the most highly anticipated moment of the convention, the first-term Alaska governor and mother of five made her first major address since presidential nominee-to-be John McCain chose her for the No. 2 spot.

Delegates gave her an exuberant response.

Said McCain, who joined Palin onstage with her family at the end of her 40-minute speech: "Don't you think we've made the right choice for the next vice-president of the United States? What a beautiful family."

Feisty style thrills delegates

Minnesotans in the convention hall gave Palin a strong thumbs up, waving signs and chanting "Sar-ah," some standing on their chairs.

"I think she hit it out of the park. I think Obama probably has sweat on his brow tonight," said delegate Kurt Daudt, an Isanti County commissioner. "Her reputation as a pit bull is really showing through."

Diana Bratlie, of Lakeville, said Palin was feisty and great. "I think that she threw down the gauntlet, and I think [Democratic vice-presidential nominee] Joe Biden is going to go out and buy some antacid."

Palin faced her largest television audience ever, a nation transfixed by her unexpected appearance on the national scene and a bumpy family narrative, not least her unwed 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy.

In a home-spun narrative of her public career as governor and small town mayor, Palin addressed the roiling debate about her qualifications for the vice-presidency, and the inevitable comparisons to Obama.

"I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town," she said. "I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA ... because I wanted to make my kids' public education even better. When I ran for City Council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too."

Before she was elected Alaska's governor in 2006, Palin noted, she was the mayor of her home town of Wassila, a job she compared to Obama's background as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago.

"Since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer -- except that you have actual responsibilities."

Emphasizing energy

Palin also used the occasion to lay out an alternative version of change, a popular Obama refrain.

"Here's how I look at the choice Americans face in this election," she said. "In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change."

Palin also homed in on the issue of energy, where Republicans believe they have an edge over Democrats who have resisted expanded oil and gas drilling, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas offshore.

"Our opponents say, again and again, that drilling will not solve all of America's energy problems -- as if we all didn't know that already," she said. "But the fact that drilling won't solve every problem is no excuse to do nothing at all.

"Starting in January," she continued, "in a McCain-Palin administration, we're going to lay more pipelines ... build more nuclear plants ... create jobs with clean coal ... and move forward on solar, wind, geothermal, and other alternative sources. We need Ameri can energy resources, brought to you by American ingenuity and produced by American workers."

Democrats unimpressed

The Obama campaign responded quickly. "The speech that Governor Palin gave was well delivered, but it was written by George Bush's speechwriter and sounds exactly like the same divisive, partisan attacks we've heard from George Bush for the last eight years. If Governor Palin and John McCain want to define 'change' as voting with George Bush 90 percent of the time, that's their choice, but we don't think the American people are ready to take a 10 percent chance on change," said Bill Burton, Obama campaign spokesman.

Since Palin was added to the ticket last week, the 44-year-old working mom, gun enthusiast and staunch abortion foe has been the focal point of the convention. Arriving with a short political résumé, she has run into a swirl of questions about her experience, her down-home Alaska background and how thoroughly it was vetted by McCain.

"Our family has the same ups and downs as any other," Palin told the delegates.

Thrown on the defense, Republican leaders launched an aggressive counterattack in the hours before her appearance, set up in a prime-time speech the night before by Sen. Fred Thompson, who decried Palin's critics as inside-the-beltway "pundits and media big shots."

Other critics, meanwhile, continued to raise questions about McCain's judgment in picking Palin, whom he had reportedly met only a handful of times.

"I'm like the rest of America that knows very little about Sarah Palin," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a co-chair of Obama's campaign in Minnesota. "But I already know a lot about John McCain and the way he makes impulsive decisions."

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis defended the McCain campaign's background work on Palin, and he said he thinks much of the criticism is motivated by the fact that the news media had no idea that Palin was on McCain's running mate short list. He added that the media scrutiny of recent days of Palin has been "frenzied, and probably could be dialed back a bit."

But the concerns were not limited to Democrats on Wednesday.

Palin's speech also had to dispel the private doubts of some Republicans who feel that her presence on the ticket could squander McCain's advantage over Obama on experience and readiness to lead. Despite Palin's unconventional background, some said, Republicans cannot hope to win an election that turns on the theme of change.

In a broadcast interview earlier Wednesday, Republican strategist and speech writer Peggy Noonan was overheard on an open microphone saying that the selection of Palin means "it's over" for the GOP ticket. "The most qualified? No," Noonan continued. "I think they went for this, excuse me, political bull... about narratives and youthfulness and the picture."

But other Republicans at the convention were enthusiastic.

"I think she is the hit of the Republican convention," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another VP short-lister who spoke to the Minnesota delegation.

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753 Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102