The appealing, reform-minded governor of Alaska, whose surprise selection as Senator McCain’s running mate electrified Republicans at their convention last month, now faces questions from prominent conservatives over whether she’s up to being a potential president – especially at a time of international financial turmoil. All eyes will be on her Thursday night when she debates Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden, a veteran senator from Delaware.
After some rough TV interviews and dead-on parodies of Palin on “Saturday Night Live” that have reinforced the questions, she risks becoming 2008’s Dan Quayle – the young Indiana senator plucked from obscurity for the GOP’s 1988 ticket, who never overcame early stumbles and a light-weight image. Mr. Quayle did not prevent the top of the ticket, George H. W. Bush, from becoming president. But the times are different: The bad economy, unpopular wars, and an unpopular president all slant the playing field toward the Democrats this year.
One by one, conservative columnists such as David Frum, David Brooks, and Kathleen Parker have come out against Palin, calling her in effect not ready for prime time. Among voters, polls show that initial enthusiasm for Palin has slipped, though the overall race remains competitive.
Still, the willingness of conservative opinion leaders to state their reservations out loud is striking, and may indicate growing doubts among Republican rank and file. “I think it does reflect thinking that is maybe said quietly,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who remains a fan of Palin. But all is not lost, he says. “The proof is in the pudding, and we see the pudding on Thursday night.”
Perhaps the most striking conservative defector is Ms. Parker, a syndicated columnist who was initially enthusiastic about Palin but now believes the Alaskan should bow out of the race “to save McCain, her party, and the country she loves.” Palin, she wrote last Friday, is “clearly out of her league,” a conclusion she says she came to reluctantly after watching the handful of interviews Palin has granted.
The response to Parker’s article was fierce. “I’ve gotten about 8,000 e-mails,” she told the Monitor. “They range from angry to vicious to appreciative to ‘Thank God somebody spoke up’.”
Some readers are blaming her for handing the election to Democrat Barack Obama, and consider her a traitor. “My comment on that,” she says, “is that I do not work for the GOP, and otherwise I don’t think being a conservative means that we have to leap into the darkness.”
There’s virtually no chance that Palin will actually drop out, Parker says, noting that it would be assumed McCain had asked her to step aside.
McCain “would be entering McGovernland,” Mr. Pitney says, referring to George McGovern, the Democrats’ 1972 nominee, who dropped his first running mate, Thomas Eagleton, after it was revealed that he had received electroshock therapy for depression. Senator McGovern lost 49 states, though probably not because of the Eagleton controversy.
Some Republicans argue that the McCain campaign has mishandled Palin, saying she has been crammed with talking points, which at times come out a bit garbled, and not allowed to be herself.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was on McCain’s running mate shortlist, faults the campaign for limiting her availability to the media. “Holding Sarah Palin to just three interviews and microscopically focusing on each interview I think has been a mistake,” Mr. Romney said Monday on MSNBC. “I think they’d be a lot wiser to let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin. Let her talk to the media, let her talk to people.”
Romney still believes she brings positives to the ticket, calling her a “maverick” like McCain. “She’s a person identified with people in homes across America…,” he said. “She’s an executive and a governor, and that brings a lot to John McCain’s ticket.”
Palin now faces the political challenge of her career, going up against a seasoned Washington politician – Senator Biden – in front of millions of viewers on national television Thursday. On Monday, she and her family flew to Sedona, Ariz., for three days of debate preparation at McCain’s ranch with a team of veteran campaign aides and policy experts.
Republican pollster David Winston does not think it’s too late for Palin to remake her image. She had an auspicious debut in her well-delivered convention speech, he says, but remains a new figure on the national stage. “She was not well-known, so inherently every appearance is more noticeable,” Mr. Winston says. “It’s because she’s a woman. Everything she does is just more noticeable.”
Thus, Thursday’s debate is huge. “For a lot of Americans,” Winston says, “their understanding of Sarah Palin is going to come during this debate.”