Sarah Palin has toppled two giants.
The former mayor of Wasilla, a rapidly growing bedroom burg north of Anchorage, crushed Gov. Frank Murkowski in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Then in the general election she defeated former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, a political veteran who was seeking a return to the office he held for two terms.
Monday at her swearing-in in Fairbanks, she simultaneously became Alaska's first female governor, Alaska's youngest governor, and the state's only beauty-queen-turned-chief-executive.
Not bad for a suburban mother of four with a relatively thin résumé that critics claimed marked her as a lightweight. Not only that, she won during an election in which Republicans in general lost big, including at governors' mansions. The party dropped six states, leaving Republicans in control of just 22 governor's seats. Governor Palin is one of three female Republicans to be running a state.
Her victory stems partly from the fact that her campaign bore little connection to the rest of the US. "It was a revolt within the Republican Party against the leadership of the party and the sitting governor," says Gerald McBeath, a political scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
A one-time "Miss Wasilla" and a former high school basketball star, Palin turned her relative lack of political experience into an asset. She presented, according to campaign slogans, a "fresh face" offering "new energy for Alaska." That resonated with an electorate that was in a decidedly antiestablishment, anti-incumbent mood.
"This is a good, healthy position Alaskans are in to have a person who's truly an independent. Perhaps we've lacked that in the past," said Palin in an interview.
She is a self-described "hard-core conservative" who opposes abortion and gay marriage, looks favorably on teaching creationism in public schools, and considers the Republican platform "the right agenda for Alaska." Nonetheless, Palin says she sees her victory as part of the national antiestablishment wave that resulted in Democratic control of Congress. She has pledged to run a nonpartisan administration, but sees herself as being on a housecleaning mission, with her own party as a target.
"I am convinced that Alaskans want positive change, and I've taken that to mean in the party itself," she says.
High on her priority list is a plan to take a tougher line with the oil industry, which she says has been "making mind-boggling profits" from Alaska's resources.
"The oil companies, the executives, are doing exactly what they're supposed to do. You take as much as possible and leave as little as possible behind," she says. The governor needs to ensure that the citizens get as much benefit as possible, "which includes more than just looking out for the bottom line."
Also a top priority, she says, is restoring a sense of ethics to a state where citizens are weary of government scandals.
Palin gained much of her prominence as a whistle-blower. After she was appointed by Governor Murkowski to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she started bucking the Republican Party leadership over ethics lapses. She blew the whistle on state GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich when he was a fellow oil and gas commissioner. In 2003, he was forced to resign his regulatory post and pay a record $12,000 fine. She and a Democratic state lawmaker filed an ethics complaint against the state attorney general, Gregg Renkes, who resigned under fire.
"The Randy Ruedrich thing was a huge deal. I think that's when her popularity really started to increase," says Ivan Moore, an Anchorage-based pollster who generally works for Democrats.
Although she campaigned for Murkowski in 2002, she became his consistent critic after he was elected. She was outspoken about the financial deal he negotiated with the three major oil producers for a $20 billion natural-gas pipeline. She and others derided the deal – never ratified by the legislature – as a giveaway to the oil industry.
Palin has paid a price for her outspokenness. Mr. Ruedrich, still party chairman, seldom talks to her, and the state party gave her no money during the general election.
During the campaign, opponents criticized her for being vague on the issues, and one even took a jab at her intelligence. "I don't hear an answer to my question, so I'm going to repeat it to you, and I'll say it slower," independent Andrew Halcro told her during one debate.
Palin says she has faced the "lightweight" charge before. She was greeted with similar skepticism when, at 32, she was elected mayor of Wasilla. During her tenure, she sometimes worked with an infant daughter asleep under her desk in a car seat.
But voters this year welcomed her outsider status as a former "hockey mom" who spent part of each summer working as a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay. That stood in sharp contrast to both Murkowski, who served as a US senator for 22 years before becoming governor, and Mr. Knowles, who served two terms in Palin's new job.