Sarah Palin Fires Up the McCain Campaign

Palin wows the GOP base, but Democrats will press the case that she's too extreme for the nation.

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Conservatives swooned at several aspects of her life story—especially the fact that she knew in advance that her youngest child would be born with Down syndrome and she went ahead and had the baby. Many evangelicals and other Christian conservatives said this proved that she was willing to live up to her antiabortion ideals. Similarly, conservatives were impressed with how Palin and her husband handled a touchy family situation—the pregnancy of their unmarried, 17-year-old daughter, Bristol—just as McCain named Palin as his running mate. The Palins announced Bristol's pregnancy and said she would have the baby and marry the father. "It's an example of how pro-life they are—pro-marriage and pro-family," Norquist says. "This stuff happens, and they are not hypocrites. This will have the effect of reinforcing her support."

McCain strategists say Palin will be attractive to the type of conservative Democrats who backed Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, in addition to working-class Roman Catholics and Christian conservatives in battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. "She touches almost every Republican constituency button, especially if you think about the states where the election is going to be decided," says Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Adds a senior GOP strategist who advised Reagan: "The base is on fire."

She also proved an immediate boon to GOP fundraising. A senior Republican said that after McCain tapped Palin, money poured in and volunteers flocked to the McCain campaign's 176 offices around the country. Before Palin, the campaign typically raised between $200,000 and $250,000 a day. After the Palin pick, the campaign raised $4.1 million in 12 hours, the strategist said, and a surge of workers showed up.

Democrats, not surprisingly, take a dim view of Palin and her prospects. Obama aides say Palin, like McCain, is too conservative for the country. And they argue that as governor of a lightly populated state for less than two years and as the former mayor of a small town, she is not ready to step into the presidency if tragedy befalls McCain, who is 72 and has a history of skin cancer.

Palin's nomination did nothing to alter the fundamental Democratic strategy for the fall—portray McCain as a man of the past who is out of touch with modern America and can't provide the change that voters want. Obama advisers say the Democratic campaign will continue to focus on bringing millions of new voters to the polls, especially young people, African-Americans, opponents of the Iraq war, and those who want less partisanship and more problem-solving in Washington.

Voting for No. 1. Discounting the "Palin effect," Democratic campaign veterans point out that voters cast their ballots based on evaluations of the presidential nominees, not their running mates. And Palin's critics say there is plenty in her background that could cause her political trouble. For example, she fired Walt Monegan, Alaska's public safety commissioner, after he refused to dismiss a state trooper who was going through a nasty divorce with Palin's sister. Palin said she saw the trooper behaving in a dangerous manner, and she insists she did nothing wrong. A state legislative panel is investigating the case, which has become publicly debated under the pejorative nickname "troopergate."

But in the end, Palin's personal narrative may overcome her vulnerabilities, at least to some extent. In a campaign of dramatic twists and turns, where the two presidential nominees, Obama and McCain, were themselves considered long shots a year ago, Palin is the latest wild card. After all, few expected Republicans to be greeting their vice presidential nominee like a rock star, with signs reading "Hockey Moms 4 Palin" and buttons that read "Hoosiers for the Hot Chick."