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Palin's pull beyond GOP base is unclear

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Jim Greer, chairman of Florida's Republican Party, was so fired up after Gov. Sarah Palin's prime-time debut that he walked into a hotel bar full of Floridians and ordered a round of drinks for the house.

Whenever TVs over the bar flashed highlights of Palin's speech, the room erupted with cheers and applause. And the next morning, Republican national committeeman Paul Senft of Polk County roused drowsy Florida delegates with a reprise of the line that has quickly become a Palin catchphrase: "A pit bull with lipstick."

It is rare that the vice presidential pick changes the course of an election. In choosing Palin, however, Republicans believe Sen. John McCain not only breathed new life into his campaign, but also gave himself the boost he might need to win.

Aside from instantly uniting social conservatives, Palin, 44, is a young Washington outsider who Republicans believe will provide a compelling counter to Sen. Barack Obama's up-by-his-bootstraps narrative.

She also is the first woman to run on the Republican presidential ticket, which party strategists believe will attract women, who have favored Democrats in recent elections.

But more than that, Republicans believe Palin delivers the ultimate prize: In a race to connect with ordinary Americans, they have tapped, in essence, an ordinary American.

Margaret Cox, a Republican delegate from Brevard County, filled a suitcase with newly minted McCain-Palin buttons for friends who were clamoring back home.

Like others here, she was drawn to Palin — a mother of five with a 19-year-old son headed to Iraq, a pregnant teenage daughter and a baby with Down's syndrome; a former small-town mayor with a working-class husband and values rooted in her Christian faith.

"She's a real woman. She's a mom. And she's not from Hollywood, she's from Alaska," Cox said. "She's so relatable, and the issue with her daughter is just going to make her more relatable. It's something all parents fear."

Added David Storck, head of the Republican Party in Hillsborough County: "She's one of us."

• • •

McCain's announcement of Palin as his running mate was met with shock, then wonder. A first-term governor of a state with fewer people than many congressional districts? Why? And who is she?

But within an influential circle of conservative activists, Palin already was well-known, and had been pegged as a rising conservative star.

Months earlier, she had been booked as the keynote speaker at Tuesday's "Life of the Party Party" in St. Paul, a celebration held at each Republican convention to celebrate the GOP's commit­ment to ending abortion.

When the McCain campaign canceled Palin's appearance so she could work on her speech, attendees grumbled, but they also beamed.

"You have to admit, we called it when we sent you an invitation," conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, 84, the party's host, told the cheering crowd.

By picking Palin, conservatives say McCain also gave his ticket a badly needed shove to the right, ensuring that faith and family will get the attention they say they deserve. While McCain opposes legal abortion and generally votes like a social conservative, he is not seen as an impassioned advocate for their causes. Palin is.

"Sarah Palin has reinvigorated the Republican Party," Schlafly said. "All those people who were holding back, they're ready to go to work."

• • •

But what about the rest of America?

The rest of America is only getting to know her. To Republicans in St. Paul for the convention, she acquired the status of folk hero, a sort of political Paul Bunyan with a babe in her arms:

She fired the chef at the governor's mansion. She put the governor's jet on eBay. She ran a corrupt state attorney general out of town. She was runner-up in the Miss Alaska competition. She helped her husband when he was fishing commercially. She hunts.

"And I can say without fear of contradiction that she is the only nominee in the history of either party who knows how to properly field dress a moose — with the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt," former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson told delegates.

"A pistol-packing mother of five!" gushed Cindy McCain, the senator's wife.

Soon, however, more details about her style, her family, and her politics began to emerge.

She is under state investigation for firing a public safety commissioner who refused to fire her former brother-in-law, a state trooper whom the Palins contend threatened her sister. She backs abstinence-only sex education for high school students, and her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. She favors teaching creationism in school.

As mayor, she noodled the idea of banning objectionable books from the town library. She opposes abortion in all cases, unless the life of the mother is at stake.

And in stark contrast to McCain, she opposes embryonic stem cell research. She also told a conservative Internet magazine she doesn't believe humans are responsible for global warming, despite the scientific evidence.

• • •

During the Republican primary, one of McCain's strongest selling points was his proven appeal among moderate Democrats and independent voters, and his willingness — often criticized by the right — to put practicality over ideology to pass legislation in the Senate.

Even as the right embraces Palin, those in the middle wonder if she might dampen McCain's cross-over appeal to swing voters likely to decide the election in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and other battleground states.

There's no real consensus yet, except for this: It is all in how they sell her.

John Feehery, a Washington-based Republican consultant, said he believes Republicans must emphasize her standing as a Washington outsider and a reformer, as McCain did during his speech accepting the party's nomination Thursday night.

"As long as it's a reform-type of message that she's peddling, I think a lot of moderates will buy it," Feehery said.

As to reports that paint Palin as somewhat of a conservative zealot, "I think when you're in Alaska you kind of say things that you wouldn't say in New York City. It's a different kind of atmosphere. But weeding out corruption, that's universal."

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, co-chair of the centrist Republican Leadership Council, said she doubts the McCain campaign's insistence that Palin will attract female supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's foe in the Democratic primary.

Palin's views are simply too conservative on issues dear to them, including abortion rights, she said. To attract true moderates, McCain must set a course down the middle, and Palin will have to downplay her conservative bona fides.

"It's been a practice that's has been used for the past 10 or 12 years — you focus on the base, pick the most emotional issues and stir them all up to get your voters to the polls," she said.

"This year, I don't think that is going to work. The issues are too big, they're concerned with health care, they're concerned with the environment. … The campaign is going to focus on those things. The vice president has to support those."

• • •

Palin's speech Wednesday night was widely considered a make-or-break event, her prime-time introduction to American voters who will get to know her over the next eight weeks — though the McCain campaign has yet to permit her to conduct an interview with the news media.

Reviews were glowing, and Democrats quickly signaled that they realize Palin could prove an effective weapon against Obama.

The morning after Palin's speech, they lined up two of their top female stars, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Broward County and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, to lay out plans to counter her appeal by showcasing her conservative beliefs and her limited experience in government.

They pointed out Palin's speech was long on attacks on Obama and short on vision for foreign or domestic policy. During an election year when voters are anxious about the war in Iraq, rising energy costs and an anemic economy, Democrats contend that being an ordinary American hockey mom won't be enough. That affinity will only get her so far.

Wasserman Schultz has 9-year-old twins and a 5-year-old. But she said she has been re-elected because she represents her constituents' interests.

"Moms want to know I support the issues important to them," she said. "When you look beneath the surface issues of her being a mom, women voters across the country are going to see there's no there there."

Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

Palin's pull beyond GOP base is unclear 09/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 7:27pm]
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