DENVER — Sarah who?
Shocking the political world and trying to make history of his own, John McCain tapped little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential nominee Friday.
The 44-year-old NRA member and former beauty pageant contestant is a stalwart conservative and is sure to please a lot of Republican activists who are skeptical about McCain and who question whether he has the energy and excitement to compete with Barack Obama.
But for a man who turned 72 on Friday and has attacked Obama as too inexperienced to be commander in chief, it's a risky effort to reel in female voters and it undercuts his argument that Obama is not ready. Even most Republican Party leaders and activists know little about her.
To explosive applause in Dayton, Ohio, Palin joined McCain on stage with her husband, Todd, and four of their five children. One of the couple's daughters cradled their 4-month-old son, Trig, who has Down's syndrome. Palin explained that her oldest son, 19-year-old Track, is headed for Iraq, having enlisted in the Army on Sept. 11, 2007.
"I'm going to take our campaign to every part of our country and our message of reform to every voter of every background in every political party, or no party at all," she said.
Palin introduced herself as "just your average hockey mom" who got involved with the PTA and then got elected to the city council and then as mayor of Wasilla, a city of roughly 9,000 residents. She has been governor less than two years, and McCain met her only six months ago.
"He sure winged one out of leftfield, didn't he?'' said former Florida Republican chairman Tom Slade. "He certainly has got to be aware that age is going to be a huge question mark with him and the vice president was going to offset that to some degree, so it's a little bit surprising. But on the other hand the climate left by the Hillary-Obama primary, particularly with females, is pretty inviting."
The pick stunned Republicans across the country, and privately many of them called it a reckless choice that is little more than affirmative action for the GOP.
Still, there were plenty of cheerleaders hailing McCain for tapping a Washington outsider and proven reformer. They argued that after nearly two years as Alaska governor, Palin is better equipped than Obama.
"She's been a city council member, a mayor, and a governor. That's more administrative experience than Obama has,'' said veteran Republican fundraiser Al Austin of Tampa. "If this gal reaches across and helps bring in some of the women voters and maybe some of the younger voters it could be a terrific choice."
The No. 1 rule for picking a vice president is to find someone ready to be president, and McCain picked a virtually unknown governor from a state with a small population. In October, she will face off in a nationally televised debate against Sen. Joe Biden, a leading foreign policy expert in Washington who knows many of the world leaders personally.
"What you need on foreign policy, what (Ronald) Reagan showed is common sense. That's what (Jimmy) Carter didn't have, that's what (Bill) Clinton didn't have, that's what Sen. Obama doesn't have,'' said Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, who hailed the pick.
Palin (pronounced PAY-lin) is a fresh face and Washington outsider who can enhance McCain's maverick reputation. In Alaska she took on Republican leaders, publicly attacking the GOP establishment over ethics problems and corruption. She helped halt the infamous "bridge to nowhere."
McCain introduced Palin as the political partner "who can best help me shake up Washington and make it start working again for the people who are counting on us."
"She's got the grit, integrity, good sense and fierce devotion to the common good that is exactly what we need in Washington today," he said.
The first Republican woman in history to be tapped for a spot on the national ticket hunts, snowmobiles and chows on moose burgers. Her husband of 20 years is a North Slope oil worker and part Yupik Eskimo.
Palin, who holds a membership with the National Rifle Association, is an ardent opponent of gun control. She also opposes gay marriage and is a national leader in the antiabortion movement. She gave birth to her fifth child in April, knowing he would have Down's syndrome, and she is still nursing him.
If Obama is the attractive, youthful face of Democrats, Palin is the GOP counterpunch. A runnerup for Miss Alaska in 1984, she has a fondness for hip, square-rimmed glasses and red or black power suits, like the one she wore in Dayton. Last year, she posed for Vogue, but poked fun at the furs they tried to get her to wear. "I have furs on my walls," she told reporters at the time.
Until the very end, the McCain campaign led reporters to believe the top contenders were Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent. The Palin announcement helped shift news coverage from Obama's well-received acceptance speech to McCain's bombshell choice.
"It's a great choice that shows McCain can think outside the box,'' said Roger Stone, a Republican consultant in Miami, who predicted Biden would come on too strong against Palin in the debate and face a backlash. "All the other choices were conventional and he had to do something unconventional. She could prove to be very attractive — assuming she can perform, and that's what we're about to find out."
McCain's choice is clearly designed to reach out to women, particularly 18-million former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters who polls show could decide the election. On Friday, Palin said she followed in the footsteps of Geraldine Ferraro, who was the Democratic vice presidential running mate in 1984, and gave an admiring nod to Clinton.
"It turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all," she said before borrowing some of Obama's favorite catchwords. "If you want change in Washington, if you hope for a better America," she said, "then we're asking for your vote on the 4th of November."
Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer, who has long advocated Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for vice president to win over moderate voters and deliver Florida, said McCain must have calculated the former Clinton supporters are the key to the election.
"She will fill the void that women Democrats across this country are feeling because of Sen. Obama's failure to pick Hillary Clinton as his VP," Greer said. "Many were already teetering and this pick is just going to push them to McCain. It was a very bold move on his part."
The question is how many people who backed Clinton will turn to a leading social conservative and opponent of abortion rights.
"She's no Hillary Clinton," said Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman. "She's Dan Quayle in a dress."
Polls show a neck-and-neck race nationally and in many key battleground states. But Democrats heading home from their national party convention in Denver dismissed Palin as a Hail Mary pass from McCain.
"I think it just drove a nail in his coffin," said Rita Ferrandino, chairwoman of the Sarasota Democratic Party. "I was just riding the train to the airport with three Hillary supporters, saying they were deeply insulted John McCain would think they are so shallow to think that Sarah Palin compares with Hillary Clinton on any level."
The pick also highlights the importance of energy policy in the presidential race. McCain is trying to make Obama's reluctance to fully embrace offshore drilling a top issue, and Palin is a strong proponent of drilling.
It's not the first time in modern history that a Republican picked a surprise running mate that drew loads of second guessing. Richard Nixon did it with Spiro Agnew in 1968, and former President George Bush did it with Dan Quayle in 1988.
Republicans won both times.
Sarah Heath Palin (PAY-lin)
Age: 44; born Feb. 11, 1964, in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Experience: Alaska governor since December 2006; chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, 2003-2004; two terms as mayor of Wasilla, a town of about 9,000 north of Anchorage; and two terms on city council.
Education: Graduated from University of Idaho in 1987, journalism.
Family: Husband Todd, a North Slope oil field worker; five children, Track, 19, Bristol, 17, Willow, 13, Piper, 7, and Trig, 4 months.
Business: Worked as sports reporter for two Anchorage television stations; owned with her husband a snowmobile, watercraft and ATV business from 1994 to 1997.
Alaska by the numbers
Size: 570,374 square miles
Electoral votes: 3
Amount that each resident gets each year from oil royalties: $1,654
State budget: $11.1-billion
Number of votes Gov. Sarah Palin got to win 2006 election: 114,697
Number of votes Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, got to win 2006 election: 130,056
Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.