Three men defeated by John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination served as the warmup act Wednesday night for Sarah Palin's widely anticipated speech.

The successive speeches by Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani were a symbol of party unity after a primary season that was often fractious. And each, serving up a red-meat message, aimed his speech at a discrete strand of the GOP's convention delegates: Romney, economic conservatives; Huckabee, evangelicals, and Giuliani, the national security crowd.

All three, unable in the primaries to swing a critical mass of the party behind their own candidacies, were greeted raucously by the delegates as they set the stage for Palin.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, went first with a full-throated denunciation of liberalism -- and a barely veiled whack at Sen. Barack Obama.

"We need change, all right -- change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington," he said. "We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington -- throw out the Big-Government liberals and elect John McCain and Sarah Palin."

He ticked off a litany of the federal government's sins, repeatedly bellowing, "It's liberal!" The crowd roared the words back at him.

Romney also yoked McCain to the party's most revered figure: "The right course is the one championed by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago, and by John McCain today. It is to rein in government spending and lower taxes, for taking a weed-whacker to excessive regulation and mandates ... and to stand up to the Tyrannosaurus appetite of government unions."

Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, opened with the humor he was known for on the campaign trail. "As much as I appreciate this magnificent opportunity to speak tonight, I've got to be honest with you. I was originally hoping for the slot on Thursday night called the acceptance speech."

He also took a shot at the news media after thanking them for uniting Republicans.

"The reporting of the last few days has proven tackier than costume changes at a Madonna concert," he said.

After saying he holds great respect for Obama's becoming his party's nominee, Huckabee continued the jabs. Obama's plans won't help America, he said, stressing that he fears an Obama election would mean higher taxes.

Finally, Giuliani, who has been ubiquitous at the convention, delivered the night's rouser keynote in which he repeatedly lacerated Obama.

"Barack Obama has never led anything," New York's former mayor said, according to his remarks. "Nothing. ... Nada. Nada. So, our opponents want to reframe the debate. They would have you believe that this election is about 'change versus more of the same.' But that's really a false choice. Because 'change' is not a destination -- just as 'hope' is not a strategy."

As Giuliani repeatedly ripped into Obama as "the least-experienced candidate for president in at least 100 years," delegates repeatedly chanted "ZERO ... ZERO ..."

"This is no time for on-the-job training," Giuliani said.

Finally, Giuliani pivoted to praise Palin.

"Governor Palin represents a new generation. She's already one of the most successful governors in America -- and the most popular. And she already has more executive experience than the entire Democratic ticket." • 612-518-3182 • 651-298-1542