Sen. John McCain's campaign must have learned playground rules in a federal prison yard. Because theirs is no way to treat a new friend, running mate Sarah Palin. From the time she was so poorly unveiled at the Republican National Convention to her muzzling to "fashion-gate" and now to an anonymous McCain staffer's charge that Palin's a "diva," theirs was a bungled effort that Palin probably realized just a few days into the campaign.
LISTEN NOW: Palin Hunting Stories - 10/28/08
How would I know? From my interview with Palin and hubby Todd yesterday, they explained how they size people up on outdoor expeditions in Alaska: "It's like Plato said, 'You learn more about someone in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.' We've had people that Todd has ended up hiring [for his commercial fishing business] based on how they did out on a hunt or a snow machine ride with us to see if they are going to complain. Are they going to buck up and realize that you have to make the best of the circumstances you're in? It's a good kind of testing ground for people," says Palin.
In the face of adversity, she's clearly bucking up. Consider something else when judging whether she's a good team player: Todd told me that the presidential campaign has torpedoed Palin's once stratospheric approval rating in Alaska. It's down 20 points since she's assumed the partisan pit bull role. As for those urging her to go "rogue," there was no evidence during my three hours with her campaign yesterday that she was going to stage a mutiny and certainly nothing close to the day 1988 GOP running mate Dan Quayle announced to his press corps that he was taking charge of his effort from heavy-handed Bushies. She and her staff never mentioned a 2012 bid or even veered from her well-traveled pro-McCain, anti-Obama stump speech. Even the music was the same at rallies in Leesburg, Va., and Fredericksburg, Va.: Dolly Parton's "9 to 5." And the frustration staffers feel about the campaign HQ back-stabbing wasn't evident on Palin's face.
But that could have been because Whispers focused more on Alaska and her life there than on the day-to-day issues debate and the status of the campaign. How important is back home to her? "If I ever thought those days were over, I wouldn't be running for vice president. It's that important to me to be out there in the great outdoors." Ditto for Todd, who pulled out his BlackBerry to show me a photo sent by two hunting pals from back home. On the screen were huge moose antlers framing a handwritten sign asking: "Where's Todd?"
We did touch on some hot-button issues, such as guns, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, her bid to keep the polar bear off the endangered species list, and culling wolves in Alaska from helicopters.
On guns: "It's an issue in the campaign because you have such a stark contrast between the two tickets. I have been a lifetime member of the NRA. John McCain and I are such proponents of protecting our constitutional rights." On Democratic opponent Sen. Barack Obama, she adds, "He has voted to ban guns and ammunition. That says it all."
On polar bears: "We do all that we can to protect our polar bears. And, thankfully, because of the Marine Mammals Protection Act, those provisions in there that we have been so strictly adhering to, our polar bear population has increased. It is healthy," she says. "Now putting it on a threatened species list, to us, we believe, is premature because of the population that is healthy. But here again, so often it's politicians on the East Coast, they do not understand Alaska and our love for our wildlife and our environment."
On wolf culling: "People, especially on the East Coast, who run the ads against Alaska allowing predator control, they've got it all wrong. They call this aerial hunting of our wolves. Nobody aerial hunts for wolves. That's illegal. You don't hunt from an airplane. It's predator control, which is a management tool that trained and certified biologists can use . . . to control a predatory herd that's decimating a population of moose and caribou. And it's a needed management tool because that moose and caribou herd is the source of food for especially our native villages in Alaska," she says. "It's not used that readily, even. It's one of those last-resort things."
On ANWR: "I hope people understand, in a 20,000-square-mile area, this is 2,000 acres. It is a plot of land the size of LAX that we would want to drill to explore. The pictures you see where they do their ANWR stories, mountains and rivers flowing and moose, those aren't even ANWR," Palin says. "You take a football field, you put a postage stamp in the middle of the football field: That's ANWR."
Those issues stirred her during 30 minutes of talk on the back of her McCain bus, but not as much as discussing "Alaskana" life in the Frontier State. Especially hunting. First, she says it's caribou more than moose hunting she likes because "it's kind of more family oriented."
And, yes, they eat all they kill. "We love our moose hot dogs, we love our moose chili and moose stew, but caribou too," says Palin. "We do this not just because it is a good family activity, but fish, moose, caribou: Those are the staples. That's what we eat. You go look in our freezer today, and you see fish, moose, and caribou. You don't see beef in our freezer. I love that I was brought up on this clean, healthy source of protein, and we teach our children the same. It makes sense for us to seize the opportunity to harvest our own food."
For Field and Stream fans, she uses a .243 for caribou, a small bullet normally used by white-tailed deer hunters. And she's just as good at hunting exaggerations as the next guy, as evidenced when she asked hubby Todd about her longest shot:
Sarah: "What's my longest?"
Todd: "It was pretty long."
Sarah: "It was so impressive."
Todd: "I was like, 'Holy cow. She didn't hit that one.' "
Sarah: "See, I have to ask him, so I'm not bragging about it myself."
Todd: "Her dad probably knows better, but it was a long range. Probably closer to 200 yards."
Sarah: "Two hundred? I was going to say 600."
Todd: "A 150 to 200 is a long shot."