DENVER – Win or lose, Sen. John McCain threw the long ball Friday when he stunned the nation by picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
His choice of a young, largely unknown woman from as far outside Washington shakes up the presidential campaign and has the potential either to help him win the White House or to doom his chances.
On the upside, her reputation as a maverick reformer willing to buck her own party magnifies McCain’s own renegade image and could help him win independent voters.
Her gender – the first woman ever on a Republican ticket and only the second in history, after Geraldine Ferraro on the Democratic side in 1984 – could help McCain win some women who had supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries but were angry that she wasn’t chosen to be Barack Obama’s running mate.
The downside: Palin’s relative inexperience in office – she served 10 years in the government of a town of 5,400 people and is two years into her first term as governor – undercuts McCain’s charge that Obama is too inexperienced to be president.
This choice also could leave those voters who are nervous about McCain’s age – 72 on Friday – anxious that he would put a novice a heartbeat away from the presidency, and they could have doubts about her ability to handle foreign affairs or a military crisis.
“She’s the ultimate high-risk, high-reward choice,” said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Polling Institute at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University. “She’s a game changer either way.”
McCain clearly wants her to underscore his own history as an independent thinker who’s often willing to challenge his own party, a crucial point as he tries to show voters that he can be different from unpopular President Bush despite his support of Bush’s tax and foreign policies.
Known as “Sarah the Barracuda” for her aggressive style as a point guard leading a championship high school basketball team, Palin earned the title anew when she became the mayor of Wasilla, a small town outside Anchorage, and fired department heads loyal to her predecessor.
As a member of the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she pushed an ethics investigation of Randy Ruedrich, a fellow commission member and the state Republican Party chairman, for conflicts of interests with oil companies. He was forced to resign from the panel, and later admitted ethics violations.
She worked with a Democrat to pursue Alaska Attorney General Gregg Renkes for ethics problems. He also resigned.
Palin was elected governor in 2006, riding what the Almanac of American Politics called her reputation as “a maverick reformer at arm’s length from her party” to defeat Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski in a primary and then Democrat Tony Knowles in the general election.
© 2008, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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