Palin: The new central topic of the presidential campaign

John McCain stunned the world with his risky choice for vice president: Sarah Palin, 44, a “former beauty queen,” mother of five, former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, pop. 9,000, and Alaska’s governor for the last 20

Is this real life or a Sandra Bullock movie? said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. GOP presidential candidate John McCain last week shocked the world by choosing as his vice presidential nominee one Sarah Palin, 44, a spunky “former beauty queen,” mother of five, and former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, pop. 9,000. To be fair, Palin has been Alaska’s governor for the last 20 months, but with no experience in national politics or in foreign policy, she seems a peculiar choice to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Make that a “near suicidal” choice, said Charles Krauthammer in Obviously, McCain decided that Palin—a corruption fighter in Alaska and fresh new face from outside Washington—would help him steal the “change” issue from Democrat Barack Obama. But McCain’s only real shot at winning this election was to hammer away at Obama’s “inexperience and readiness to lead.” With the ultra-lightweight Palin now on the ticket, that line of attack is gone.

Why, then, are the “liberal elites of New York and Washington” so eager to destroy her? asked William Kristol in The Weekly Standard. Palin’s addition to the ticket has electrified the GOP’s conservative base, whose interest in this election had previously been lukewarm. In the 24 hours following McCain and Palin’s first joint appearance as running mates, their campaign took in an astonishing $10 million in donations, said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times, most of it from evangelicals and social conservatives smitten by Palin’s small-town charm, her support for creationism and gun rights, and, in particular, her decision not to abort her fifth child, Trig, who was diagnosed in the womb with Down syndrome. In Palin, “the anti-abortion camp finally has a candidate who not only talks the talk but walks the walk,” and it has them fired up in a way McCain alone never could.

Maybe so, but it didn’t take long for some serious blemishes to appear on this conservative poster girl, said John Dickerson in Palin, it seems, is the subject of a state ethics investigation, over charges that she used her clout as governor to pursue a vendetta against her former brother-in-law. Next came the revelation that this supposed reformer once publicly supported providing federal funding for Alaska’s notorious “Bridge to Nowhere,” and as mayor of tiny Wasilla, lobbied for and got $27 million in federal earmarks. Most distracting of all was the announcement that Palin’s unmarried 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. Obama quickly released a statement declaring that topic out-of-bounds, but Bristol’s pregnancy looks like a metaphor “for the gestating and growing surprises associated with the Palin candidacy.”

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At this moment, dozens of reporters are on the ground in Alaska, searching for damaging information from Palin’s past, said Jonathan Alter in Newsweek. “Palin’s chances of emerging unscathed are slim.” With her total lack of experience on the national stage, “she’s been all but set up for failure.” She certainly will fail to get many votes from former Hillary Clinton supporters, said Gail Collins in The New York Times. Clinton was “the best-prepared candidate in the Democratic pack,” while Palin is a cute nobody who opposes sex education and wants to outlaw abortion even for victims of rape and incest. Memo to the GOP: The idea that women will vote for “any candidate with the same internal plumbing is both offensive and historically wrong.”

Fine—attack Palin all you like, said John J. Pitney in National Review Online. Liberal pundits, bloggers, and TV blowhards are now convulsed with laughter at the very thought that our vice president could be a woman with big hair, a big family, a passion for hunting and mooseburgers, and a blue-collar husband who races snowmobiles. That sneering “might not go over well with … you know, the kind of people who cling to guns and religion.” Millions of these traditional, small-town Americans “might regard a vote for the McCain-Palin ticket as a good way to register their disapproval.”

Nonetheless, Palin is an extremely risky choice, said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post, and her qualifications have now become the central issue in the campaign. Americans will have just 70 days to evaluate Palin, a political neophyte who one day could find herself as the leader of the most powerful nation in a complex, dangerous world. McCain, an impulsive man with a gambler’s guts, has bet the house on her. Will voters be as willing “to roll the dice”?

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