White House hopeful John McCain’s vice presidential pick Sarah Palin was to make her high-stakes debut at the Republican party’s convention on Wednesday following revelations about her family and her record as a little known Alaska governor.

Palin, 44, has stayed out of sight since the convention began on Monday as she huddled with McCain’s advisers to prepare for a pivotal televised speech that could make or break the Republican ticket in its battle against Democratic foe Barack Obama.

The address Wednesday evening would allow Palin to make her case directly to American voters amid a media storm over her unwed pregnant teenage daughter and allegations she abused her office as governor and sought out federal funds for projects opposed by McCain.

The Arizona senator faces criticism he made a reckless choice in Palin, who would be next in line for the presidency should anything befall the 72-year-old McCain.

But his campaign insisted the decision to pick her as McCain’s running mate was carefully weighed, despite media reports McCain learned about Palin’s pregnant daughter only the day before he chose her last week.

The Alaska governor, who is pro-life and a devout Christian, has energized the party’s core conservative base, which rallied to Palin’s defense after she revealed her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant and would marry the father.

But the flurry of disclosures served as an unwelcome distraction for the Republicans who were keen to recapture the spotlight from Obama, who became the first African-American to be nominated as a presidential candidate for a major US party last month.

Delegates cheered speeches hailing McCain as a born leader shaped by his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, with President George W. Bush telling the convention McCain was "ready to lead this nation."

Bush, whose popularity has plummeted to near record lows, said McCain and Palin were the right ticket to lead the country.

"We live in a dangerous world. And we need a president who understands the lessons of September 11, 2001: That to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen, and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain," said Bush.

But Bush, who has served in the Oval Office for eight years and took the country into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while presiding over a troubled economy, only appeared in a short recorded video to the convention — leaving his wife, Laura, to bid farewell.

The Obama campaign has charged that Bush is merely passing the torch to a candidate who would offer four more years of the same "disastrous" policies, trying to shackle McCain to the president’s unpopular programs.

Polls suggest Obama won an important bounce following his party’s convention in Denver.

Outside the convention center, police used tear gas and chemical sprays to disperse hundreds of defiant protestors marching against Bush’s policies.

Several arrests were made, bringing to nearly 300 the number of people held in two days of clashes outside the convention center in St Paul, police said.

Inside the convention hall, Republican image makers pressed home the message of service and of "putting country first," paying tribute to soldiers who lost lives in recent wars.

Fred Thompson, a former Republican presidential candidate and star of hit television crime drama "Law & Order," electrified the crowd packed into the 20,000 seat Excel center, declaring that McCain was "the kind of character that civilizations from the beginning of history have sought in their leaders ."

"Strength. Courage. Humility. Wisdom. Duty. Honor," Thompson said, insisting that McCain had stood up for the right policy in Iraq and that the United States was now winning the war.

"It’s pretty clear there are two questions we will never have to ask ourselves: ‘Who is this man?’ and ‘Can we trust this man with the presidency?’" he said.

In a Gallup daily tracking poll on Tuesday, Obama was at 50 percent and McCain was at 42 percent of voters, the first time the Illinois Democrat had attracted fully half of the vote.

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