Palin pick jolts GOP ranks ahead of convention
Socially conservative and telegenic, Alaska's governor livens the ticket but is questioned on experience.
Denver - John McCain's surprise selection Friday of Sarah Palin, first-term governor of Alaska, as his running mate has sent a jolt of electricity into the Republican Party on the eve of its convention.
The popular, telegenic governor of America's 49th state brings to the table a record of challenging the status quo, strong social conservative views, and the potential to attract disgruntled supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who came close to winning the Democratic nomination but was not chosen as nominee Barack Obama's running mate. Governor Palin's own maverick streak, pushing for ethics in government and opposing special-project funding from Washington, meshes with Senator McCain's stance.
Still, Governor Palin's short time as a governor under two years and lack of experience in national security matters has raised eyebrows, especially given McCain's age. At 72, he is the oldest first-time nominee for either major party. Voters may look a little more closely at his running mate's preparedness for office than they might otherwise.
But then there's the potential upside in the selection of Palin - the daughter of a science teacher and school secretary originally from Idaho - as one who may be able to woo the demographic groups that have been most resistant to Obama's appeal: white older women and working-class voters.
The Palin pick "was both a bold and a risky move," says Dennis Simon, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Bold, because McCain went way outside the Washington, D.C., establishment and chose someone who was hardly on the radar screen; risky, because she has no exposure to the rough and tumble of national politics. I don't want to draw too close a comparison, but the last time this happened was when [the first President] Bush went with Dan Quayle."
Palin's selection is also reminiscent of Democrat Walter Mondale's choice of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, an attempt to inject some excitement in a tough year for the Democrats. While the Bush-Quayle ticket succeeded, Mondale-Ferraro got trounced.
In some ways, the selection of Palin is most important for what it reveals about McCain. To one former McCain aide, Dan Schnur, the unexpected choice "suggests that McCain and his advisers aren't as confident about the direction of the race, even given the ground they've made up in the polls."
The latest Gallup tracking poll shows Obama now ahead of McCain by 8 points, after losing his lead in the run-up to the convention. But Mr. Schnur expects the race to return to a dead heat after the Republican convention.
Schnur also surmises that the McCain team concluded that the experience argument against Obama that with less than four years in the Senate and no executive experience, he's not ready for the Oval Office wasn't going to work much better than it did for Senator Clinton.
"So they decided it's worth trading that argument away in order to target Clinton's supporters more directly," he says.
"It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America," she said, referring to the votes Senator Clinton received in the primaries, "but it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all."
Whether Clinton supporters would be more inclined to vote for McCain because he has a female running mate is an open question. Palin strongly opposes abortion rights, a position at odds with most Democratic voters.
Abortion is not a top-tier issue in the 2008 race, but the Democrats are expected to push hard on the future of the Supreme Court. The next president could face as many as three high court vacancies in his first term, and the right to abortion, as laid out in Roe v. Wade, hangs in the balance.
Regardless of her politics, Palin has another point of appeal: her family. She and her husband, Todd Palin, a commercial fisherman and oil worker, have five children, ranging in age from 18 years to 4 months. Her oldest, a son named Track, is in the Army and will deploy to Iraq on Sept. 11. Her youngest, a boy named Trig, was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Palin knew this early in her pregnancy, but opted to have him anyway, a big plus for social conservatives who have had an uneasy relationship with McCain.
The only controversy so far in Palin's tenure as governor concerns her firing of the state's public safety commissioner. He alleged the firing may have come in connection with a situation regarding Palin's sister, but Palin says she has nothing to hide and has cooperated with an investigation into the matter.
Palin's choice will make for an unusual matchup in the vice-presidential debate, which takes place Oct. 2. Joseph Biden, Obama's running mate, has been a senator from Delaware for more than 35 years since Palin was 9 - and is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Before becoming governor of Alaska in December 2006, defeating one incumbent and one former governor along the way, Palin had spent 10 years as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.
The outcome of that debate is anyone's guess. Either Senator Biden, known for his aggressive style, is seen as beating up on Palin and it ends up hurting him. Or, if Palin is seen as out of her depth and Biden lays back, she could damage the GOP ticket.
Soon after the Palin announcement, the Obama campaign hit back hard on what they see as both a thin record and her backing of "failed economic policies."
"Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency," said Adrianne Marsh, an Obama campaign spokeswoman. "Governor Palin shares John McCain's commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, the agenda of Big Oil, and continuing George Bush's failed economic policies - that's not the change we need, it's just more of the same."
Still, there's no doubting Palin's popularity in her home state - at 80 percent, according to Hays Research. On a national level, in addition to reaching out to women, she could also have a special appeal in Western states where the presidential race is tight - such as Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Palin is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and an outdoorswoman.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster based in northern Virginia, says he noticed her months ago as having vice presidential potential when he was surveying the governors, and noted that she's the most popular governor in the country. He also does not believe that putting her on the GOP ticket takes away the inexperience argument against Obama.
"He's the top of the ticket," says Mr. Ayres. "The comparison is still going to be between the two candidates for president."