Palin daughter’s pregnancy stirs GOP convention

But delegates say pregnancy humanizes the nominee for vice president.

By , Staff writer

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    FAMILY matters: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin exited the stage at a rally Friday in Dayton, Ohio, with daughters Willow and Bristol, far left, holding Palin’s infant son Trig.
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If there’s one thing everyone can agree on about Sarah Palin, John McCain’s choice of running mate, it’s that she is one busy woman.

She is governor of Alaska, now running for vice president, and is raising five children, including a special-needs baby. On the first day of the convention, Ms. Palin and her husband disclosed that their 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant, and will have the baby, and marry the father.

In the past, the typical view of social conservatives would have been that Palin should be at home with her family. But social scientists have found that this attitude has shifted in the last 15 years or so, says Jim Guth, an expert on the politics of Christian conservatives at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

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“Among religious conservatives, there may be some kind of notion that a mother’s place is in the home, but that’s pretty well disappeared [from] reality,” Professor Guth says. “Most Christian conservatives are in the workforce. They understand that they have to be in the workforce and others like them have to be in the workforce. It’s a modern reality.”

Guth notes that the view of acceptable roles for fathers has also expanded and that in the Palins’ case, as her political career has soared, her husband has taken on more of the family duties.

Survey data bear out the shift in attitudes. In 1987, a Pew Research Center survey found that only 25 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of white evangelical Protestants completely disagreed with this statement: “Women should return to their traditional roles in society.”

In 2007, the numbers had shifted to 41 percent and 42 percent. Among Americans overall, the number rose from 29 percent to 51 percent.
James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, an influential Christian conservative organization, has long asserted that mothers should be at home, but even he has embraced the selection of Palin and now says he’ll vote for the GOP ticket.

Gary Bauer, head of the group American Values, is also enthusiastic about Palin. “She will do more to promote the values of conservative pro-family people by making the sacrifices that come with this kind of government service” than by staying at home, says Mr. Bauer, who ran for president in 2000.

Monday’s revelation that Palin’s daughter Bristol is pregnant stunned conventiongoers and took McCain’s campaign even farther away from its message – that Democrat Barack Obama is not ready to lead – than did hurricane Gustav.

“Obviously, it’s not what these energized delegates want to hear,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist from the University of South Florida in Tampa. Reaction among delegates has been twofold, she says: First, they wish they had been told up front about the pregnancy so they would not be blindsided. Second, they surmise that the situation humanizes Palin even more, as she and her family deal with an issue many American families face.

Bristol Palin’s decision to have the baby comports with the antiabortion views of many delegates here, so given the alternative, there is a good-news element to the story. But the pregnancy also puts the spotlight on Sarah Palin’s support for abstinence-only sex education, which opposes discussion of birth control for teens.

The news also reopened the question of how closely John McCain had vetted Palin before selecting her as his running mate, a move that surprised the political world last Friday. Now word that the McCain campaign dispatched a dozen staffers to Alaska last week, allegedly to continue investigating Palin’s background, has raised more questions.

The McCain campaign maintains that Palin was vetted as fully as the other potential running mates. “The team sent to Anchorage last week was the communications jump team, set up for whoever the pick was, to integrate their world into ours,” a top McCain official told Politico.com.

McCain officials also say Palin told them about her daughter’s pregnancy before her selection as running mate. “Many American families have experiences like this,” Mark Salter, a top McCain aide, said to reporters Monday. “Unfortunately, it has to play out in the public spotlight.”

The real challenge for Palin will come with press interviews about policy, says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, Durham.

“How ready is she for that?” he asks. “She can pass vetting but still foul up on foreign policy. That will play a lot more than [Monday’s] news.”

For now, GOP delegates continue to applaud the choice of Palin despite, even because of, her pregnant daughter. “It’s just another reason that I think she’s great, because that pregnancy could be terminated very easily without anybody knowing, but again, they chose life,” says Valerie Citrano of Crawford, Texas, alluding to the fact that Palin chose to give birth to her son, Trig, knowing he was diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome.

Mary Knox Merrill contributed to this report.

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