PHILADELPHIA — Some days, it seems that the presidential campaign has morphed into an episode of what could be a new reality TV show: All About Sarah.
Since she joined the Republican ticket as the vice presidential candidate 17 days ago, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has helped pack rallies and captured imaginations with her image as a working mom of five, hunter, and whip-cracking fighter against the political establishment.
White women and independents attracted to Palin have given GOP nominee Sen. John McCain newfound momentum, recent polls show, including a Quinnipiac University survey of the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
And with the nation's newest celebrity beside him, McCain has been drawing his biggest crowds yet, driving the campaign discussion, and inspiring optimism among Republicans.
Most important, the choice of Palin, 44, has allowed McCain to try to claim the mantle of "change," and to try to distance himself from President Bush. The McCain campaign has painted Palin as a reformer in Alaska and stressed instances in which he strayed from GOP orthodoxy during his Senate career, such as pushing limits on campaign finance.
Analysts caution that Palin's ride could get bumpier. She has been sheltered by the McCain campaign, performing with a script to friendly crowds, but she will eventually emerge to face voters and the news media on her own.
Palin had her first serious interview on Thursday and Friday with ABC News, during which she contradicted her earlier statements that human activity did not cause global warming and tried to explain away calling the Iraq War "a task that is from God." She also defended asking for federal earmarks for Alaska, though she has boasted of fighting such spending as wasteful.
"Sarah Palin has had way more than her 15 minutes of fame," said Karen O'Connor, founder and director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. "She got it because she's a woman with five kids from Alaska. She's different. But now, it's time for some serious scrutiny." O'Connor said the "cumulative effect" of that examination could quiet the buzz.
Still, public-opinion surveys released last week found a significant Palin effect on the GOP ticket. The ABC News/Washington Post poll, for instance, picked up a swing of more than 20 percentage points among white women, a key voting bloc. Before the conventions, white women favored Obama over McCain 50 percent to 42 percent, while afterward favored McCain, 53 percent to 41 percent.
Democrats have begun to chip away at Palin, highlighting contradictions to her claims of corruption-fighting. For instance, Palin says she stood up to Congress to refuse federal earmarks for Alaska, when the record shows she sought at least $200-million — and did not initially oppose the infamous "bridge to nowhere."
Democrats also are painting Palin as an extremist, noting that she wants abortion to be outlawed even in cases of rape and incest. Vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware said Palin represents a "backward step" for women.
Polling by EMILY's List has shown that women's favorable initial impression of Palin dropped sharply when they learned her positions on abortion rights. "What he has done is to attach himself to the right wing of the Republican Party," said Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, which works to elect Democratic women.
National polling shows that, so far at least, McCain's gamble has paid dividends.