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Column | Adam C. Smith

Talk is on McCain, whispers on Palin

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Delayed a day by Hurricane Gustav, Republicans re-launched their convention Tuesday night and presented Sen. John McCain as the candidate whose life story proves his courage, character and independence.

But amid the McCain tributes by President Bush and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the life story that had everybody talking wasn't that of the nominee, but rather his little-known running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Republicans gathered in the Twin Cities are variously hailing Palin as America's newest political superstar or quietly fretting that a stream of unflattering news about her that has eked out in recent days could be the start of more serious and damaging revelations.

"Sure, there is concern about how much vetting was done," former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said.

Former Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas said Palin's success on the ticket is dependent on her performance in tonight's speech, and on the campaign trail in the coming weeks. "I'm hoping it's a home run. I'm hoping, you know?"

Reporters are only starting to delve into Palin's background. Nothing especially damaging has surfaced, but every bit of new information takes on extra significance because Palin is so little known and because her selection was such a surprise.

Among the issues that have come to light since she joined the ticket Friday: that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant (Levi Johnston, the 18-year-old father of the baby, was said to be en route to the convention from his home in Wasilla, Alaska); that she supported the notorious "bridge to nowhere" before opposing it; that while McCain has been a crusader against budget earmarks, Palin as governor and as mayor sought earmarks, with her most recent round of requests totaling $300 for each Alaskan.

"It wasn't the introduction she had hoped for," Cardenas said, "but in 24 hours we'll get beyond it."

A lawyer hired to defend Palin in an ethics investigation said he also is representing her personally and is permitted to bill the state up to $95,000 for work on the case. The issue involves the dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, which some have alleged came after he refused to fire a state trooper who had divorced Palin's sister.

The McCain campaign on Tuesday strongly refuted suggestions that they had conducted a superficial review of Palin, with whom McCain met only once to discuss the vice presidency. That perception was fueled when the campaign sent a dozen communications staffers and lawyers to Alaska after Palin joined the ticket, but a campaign spokesman said such a team would have been dispatched no matter who was picked.

Palin underwent a "full and complete" background examination before McCain chose her as his running mate, said lawyer Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., who helped lead the vice presidential review process. Asked whether everything that came up as a possible red flag during the review already has been made public, he said: "I think so. Yeah, I think so. Correct."

The intense scrutiny of Palin has turned into fodder for Republicans to pounce on the media, and some Republicans predicted a backlash could help McCain.

"What a breath of fresh air Gov. Sarah Palin is,'' former presidential candidate and Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson told cheering Republicans at the Xcel Energy Center. "She is from a small town, with small town values, but that's not good enough for those folks who are attacking her and her family. Let's be clear, the selection of Gov. Palin has the other side and their friends in the media in a state of panic. And no wonder. She is a courageous, successful reformer who is not afraid to take on the establishment."

Palin is scheduled to address the convention today, and her speech is more widely anticipated than even McCain's acceptance speech Thursday.

"I've never seen delegates so excited as they are over Sarah Palin, but she's got to deliver,'' said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "She's got to deliver an awesome speech Wednesday night because no one knows her."

Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor met Palin on a recent trip House Republicans took to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where they were promoting drilling. She had dinner with the lawmakers and left them impressed.

He said he wasn't worried that the McCain campaign failed to vet her properly — "I trust Sen. McCain" — but he acknowledged that her speech is "very critical. She's introducing herself to the entire nation, it'll be a long speech, and content is important."

For all the buzz about Palin, Tuesday's convention schedule was focused on McCain and underscored how dramatically the political landscape has shifted in eight years. Bush, in abbreviated remarks given via satellite, hailed the candidate whom he defeated in a bitter primary in 2000.

"We live in a dangerous world,'' the president said. "And we need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001: that to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen, and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain."

Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, spoke of McCain's willingness to take politically unpopular positions and his bipartisan track record. Lieberman also took a shot at the Democratic Party's nominee.

"I'm here, as a Democrat myself, to tell you: Don't be fooled by some of these political statements and advertisements. Trust me. God only made one John McCain, and he is his own man,'' he said. "Sen. Barack Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But my friends eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times."

Meanwhile, a gathering of some 700 conservatives at the annual Life of the Party Party, which celebrates the Republican Party's position against abortion, turned into a Palin rally. Conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham praised Palin's commitment to family and said media and liberals will do everything in their power to topple her.

"Sarah Palin represents all the things they hate," Ingraham said. "Life is the first. Big families, hunting, patriotism. … I have no doubt we will continue to see vicious, unfair and horrible attacks on Sarah Palin."

Rilio A. Mastrantonio, an Illinois delegate, acknowledged Palin may have a steep learning curve and will continue to face intense scrutiny, but he believes she's smart and sharp and will get through it.

"It's a risky pick," Mastrantonio said, "but it's going to pay off in the end."

Wes Allison and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press. Adam C. Smith can be reached at

Talk is on McCain, whispers on Palin 09/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 5, 2008 10:14am]
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