McCain's masterstroke

If I were Joe Biden, I'd be worried about Sarah Palin

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I wrote a column back in June in which I said Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be the ideal running mate for Sen. John McCain. But I never thought he'd pick her.

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

I underestimated him. And Democrats will underestimate "Sarah Barracuda" at their peril.

At 44, Sarah Louise Heath Palin is the youngest governor in Alaska's relatively brief history as a state. She's also the nation's most popular governor, with an approval rating in the 80s.

Ms. Palin is popular in part because of her personal qualities. She earned the "Sarah Barracuda" nickname as the point guard on her Wasilla high school basketball team, which she led to the state championship in 1982. Two years later, when she won the Miss Wasilla beauty pageant (and went on to be the first runner up in the Miss Alaska contest) she was also named Miss Congeniality. Fire and nice.

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 missing. A regular churchgoer, she's staunchly pro-life. Her eldest son is a soldier. She's a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association who hunts, fishes and runs marathons.

Her wholesome family and modest lifestyle contrast with the wealth Mr. McCain married into, and will make it harder for Democrats to portray the GOP ticket as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. And it doesn't hurt that Ms. Palin's husband, Todd, a Native American, is a commercial fisherman and an oilfield worker.

Ms. Palin is an expert on energy policy, which figures to be the top domestic issue in this election. (She was ethics commissioner of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission before resigning in protest over what she alleged were the lack of ethics by fellow Republicans.) Her presence on the ticket raises hopes that Mr. McCain will soften his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has said that Mr. McCain should run -- a la Harry Truman -- against a corrupt, do-nothing Congress this fall. If he chooses to do so, Ms. Palin is the ideal partner. She took on a corrupt GOP establishment in Alaska and pushed a landmark ethics reform bill through the state legislature. She's as much a maverick as Mr. McCain, though one who elates, rather than irritates, conservatives.

"If McCain has in fact chosen Gov. Palin, then count me in with both feet," said radio talk show host Mark Levin, a frequent and often savage critic of Mr. McCain. "Palin is by all accounts a principled conservative and government reformer who can contribute mightily to the decision-making that occurs in the White House."

If elected, Ms. Palin would be the first female vice president in history. This prospect may appeal to some disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters. On the other hand, pro-abortion women might be put off by her pro-life views.

There is no such thing as the perfect candidate. The knock on Sarah Palin would be her relative inexperience. She's been governor for only 18 months, and before that, the mayor of Wasilla, a small suburb of Anchorage.

But it will be difficult for Democrats to attack Ms. Palin on this without calling attention to Barack Obama's lack of experience. Ms. Palin is the undercard, not the top of the ticket. And her 18 months as governor (not to mention her two terms as mayor) is 18 months more executive experience than Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden have combined.

Whether this is a brilliant choice or a bad risk will depend on how Ms. Palin performs on the campaign trail. But if I were Joe Biden, I'd be worried. A former journalist, Sarah Palin is careful about what she says and says it well, qualities for which Mr. Biden is not reknowned. Mr. Obama picked Mr. Biden in part because of his reputed skill as a hatchet man. But if Mr. Biden comes on too hard in the vice presidential debate, he'll look like a bully. And Alaska is littered with the bodies of those who tried to bully Sarah Palin and failed.

What's not in doubt is that Mr. McCain's rollout of his running mate was brilliant. The secret was kept until the last minute, which is remarkable in politics. Speculation about who it would be dominated the morning talk shows Friday, pushing aside discussion of Mr. Obama's acceptance speech.

Mr. McCain has shown political skills few of us thought he had. I think he's about to take the new kid to school.



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