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Sarah Palin, McCain's pick, forged maverick political path in Alaska

The GOP's surprise vice-presidential nominee brings a fresh face to the '08 race.

By Peter Grier and Yereth RosenStaff writer and Correspondent / September 1, 2008

Republican vice-presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigned in O'Fallon, Mo. on Sept. 1.

John Gress/Reuters

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Washington

The young Sarah Heath once won the title “Miss Congeniality” in a local Alaska beauty contest. But her high school basketball teammates had another nickname for her, one that belied her genial surface: “Sarah Barracuda.”

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Those monikers may sum up the contradictory political appeal of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s surprise choice to be his vice-presidential nominee.

She’s young, a fresh face, and a self-described “hockey mom” who eloped with her high school boyfriend after college. At the same time, she’s made a career of running against, through, and over Alaska’s old boy political network.

Governor Palin is energetic, staunchly antiabortion, pro-gun, and a maverick who has at times angered the Alaskan Republican Party. To win the governor’s mansion in 2006, she had to defeat the incumbent, scandal-weakened Frank Murkowski in the primary.

In office, Palin is a series of contradictions. Fiercely pro-development and pro-drilling, she can be combative in her dealings with the major companies that produce oil on the North Slope – BP, ConocoPhillips, and Exxon Mobil.

Her administration was harshly critical of BP for its failure to prevent pipeline corrosion, a lapse that in 2006 resulted in the North Slope’s worst oil spill. Spurred on by that, Palin established a new layer of oil-field regulation, the Petroleum Systems Integrity Office.

Like nearly all Alaska politicians (but not John McCain), she supports oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike many, she also backs oil development in the federally controlled but environmentally sensitive outer continental shelf of Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Such development is much more controversial in Alaska because it has always been opposed by the North Slope’s Inupiat Eskimo residents, who fear that oil spills, chronic pollution and industrial noise will wreck the icy habitat of the region’s whales and other marine mammals.

Palin’s fights with Big Oil

But Palin has famously clashed with the major North Slope oil producers by demanding higher compensation to the state treasury for oil extracted from state-owned lands. She’s also been critical of what she characterizes as their practice of keeping oil and gas “warehoused” on the North Slope.

She’s pushed through bills creating an independent pipeline company, TransCanada Corp., to build a long-desired natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. That takes away control of the project from the major oil producers.

She’s also pushed through a rewrite of the state’s oil-production tax a year after her predecessor, Republican Frank Murkowski, got lawmakers to agree to a measure that was much easier on the oil companies. That earlier tax bill, it turned out, involved bribery that’s been central to a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation. Three former lawmakers have gone to prison.

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