ST. PAUL, MINN.—Last month, Sarah Palin was the obscure governor of one of America's most sparsely populated states, balancing the imperatives of Alaska's 680,000 citizens with the needs of her husband and five children and living a relatively quiet life far from the Sturm und Drang of national politics. Today, Palin is a sudden celebrity and, as the Republican vice presidential nominee, a potential game-changer who could shake up the already volatile race for the White House.
As the final sprint to Election Day begins, the Republicans say they have finally hit their stride. GOP strategists argue that the blend of John McCain's experience and judgment and Sarah Palin's vigor and middle-class appeal will prove to be the winning formula. On the other hand, the Democrats will build on their argument that Barack Obama and Joe Biden offer a better mix of change, hope, and savvy. Their goal is to persuade America that they would be more aggressive and innovative in helping the middle class—particularly on economic and healthcare concerns that rank high in voters' minds—and that McCain and Palin would continue the unpopular policies of President George W. Bush.
As for Palin, it has been an unlikely journey for the 44-year-old conservative, a bespectacled former beauty queen whose nickname as a young basketball player was "Sarah Barracuda" because of her will to win and toughness under pressure. A few weeks ago, she was given little chance to be John McCain's running mate, although it was known in political circles that she was under consideration. But McCain decided to go with his instincts (to the initial dismay of some in the GOP establishment). He gambled that Palin would be the kind of Washington outsider and committed conservative who could rally the Republican right, including evangelicals and other "values voters" who had been skeptical of McCain's credentials from the start.
Base hit. At her speech to the Republican National Convention September 3, Palin seemed to be just what the GOP's base was looking for. She blasted the same targets Republican leaders have used for a generation to fire up core conservatives—Washington insiders, the media, and soft-headed liberals who include, Palin made clear with a few biting phrases, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
In the address, her debut before a national audience, Palin seemed almost an updated version of Ronald Reagan, a charismatic westerner with a winning smile who put a pleasant face on hard-line conservative views. Those views include strong opposition to abortion and gun control, promotion of traditional values of faith and family, advocacy of smaller government, and a celebration of patriotism and the military. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, says Palin has become extremely popular with key segments of the GOP base, including not only antiabortion activists and gun enthusiasts but also supporters of domestic energy development, those who want reformers to battle corruption, as Palin says she has done in Alaska, and those who favor smaller government.
In addition, Palin is trying to echo McCain's argument that he is the true agent of change and the real "outsider" in the race, despite his nearly three decades in Congress. By picking Palin, McCain named the second woman ever to be the vice presidential nominee of a major party, after Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and the first woman vice presidential nominee for the GOP.
Palin clearly understands the moment and knows she might have special appeal to women voters, especially some of the millions who voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and remain disaffected from Obama despite Clinton's endorsement of him. "This is America," Palin told the convention, "and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity."
The governor also showed flashes of humor in referring to herself. She joked about "the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull—lipstick." And Palin quickly showed a willingness to play the traditional role of a vice presidential candidate by attacking her opponents as effete, elitist liberals who don't share middle-class and small-town values of patriotism, faith, and fiscal responsibility. She is a hunter and enjoys fishing, and her political narrative of taking on "the good old boys" and the old-line establishment in Alaska echoes McCain's claims to be a maverick who doesn't buckle under pressure.
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."