McCain's secret weapon

There's a running mate who's got it all

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Who? When?

Republicans, including, I imagine, Sen. John McCain himself, are asking these questions about his selection of a vice presidential candidate.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

Ideally, a presidential candidate wants a running mate who will help him win the election, and (maybe) to govern afterwards. But most will settle for a veep who isn't a drag on the ticket, as Dan Quayle was for the first President Bush.

A presidential nominee traditionally chooses a running mate to balance a ticket geographically, or to appease a faction of his party. The most successful example of this was when John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson, though neither liked the other, and LBJ joined the ticket only because he thought Kennedy would lose.

Bill Clinton broke with this tradition when he chose another young (purported) moderate from a neighboring southern state. By picking Al Gore, he hoped to reinforce his campaign theme of generational change.

Which way will Mr. McCain go? The potential running mates most often discussed have downsides nearly as great as their upsides.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty helps only in Minnesota, and not enough, according to current polls, to make a difference there. Mr. McCain's friend Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut would bring in some moderate Democrats but could further antagonize conservatives already suspicious of Mr. McCain. Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts would have little appeal to working class whites unhappy with Sen. Barack Obama, and evangelicals fret about that Mormon thing. A Mike Huckabee nomination would irritate economic and foreign policy conservatives as much as it would please evangelicals. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is a rising star. But he's only 36, and he's been governor for less than a year.

There is one potential running mate who has virtually no down side. Those conservatives who have heard of her were delighted to learn that McCain advance man Arthur Culvahouse was in Alaska recently, because they surmised he could only be there to discuss the vice presidential nomination with Gov. Sarah Palin.

At 44, Sarah Louise Heath Palin is both the youngest and the first female governor in Alaska's relatively brief history as a state. She's also the most popular governor in America, with an approval rating that has bounced around 90 percent.

This is due partly to her personal qualities. When she was leading her underdog Wasilla high school basketball team to the state championship in 1982, her teammates called her "Sarah Barracuda" because of her fierce competitiveness. Two years later, when she won the Miss Wasilla beauty pageant, she was also voted Miss Congeniality by the other contestants.

Sarah Barracuda. Miss Congeniality. Fire and nice. A happily married mother of five who is smart and drop dead gorgeous.

But it's mostly because she's been a crackerjack governor, a strong fiscal conservative and a ferocious fighter of corruption, especially in her own party.

Ms. Palin touches other conservative bases, some of which Mr. McCain has been accused of rounding. Track, her eldest son, enlisted in the Army last Sept. 11. She's a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association who hunts, fishes and runs marathons. A regular churchgoer, she's staunchly pro-life.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal said Mr. McCain should run against a corrupt, do-nothing Congress, a la Harry Truman. If he should choose to do so, Ms. Palin would make an excellent partner.

"The landscape is littered with the bodies of those who have crossed Sarah," pollster Dave Dittman told The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes.

Mr. Obama's support has plunged recently among white women. Many Hillary Clinton supporters accuse him -- I think unfairly -- of being sexist. Having Sarah Palin on the ticket could help Mr. McCain appeal to these disgruntled Democrats.

Running mates usually aren't named until the convention. But if Mr. McCain should name Ms. Palin earlier, it would give America more time to get to know this extraordinary woman. And because she's at least a dozen feature stories waiting to be written, she could help him dominate the news between now and the conventions.

Another reason for selecting Sarah Palin early would be to force Barack Obama to make a mistake. He'd have to rule out choosing someone like Virginia Sen. Jim Webb as his running mate, for fear of exacerbating charges of sexism. And if he chose a woman other than Hillary, the impression Democrats are wimpy would be intensified.



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