The best-kept secret of the 2008 presidential campaign — at least since last week’s vice-presidential sweepstakes — came to an end with John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain successfully completed the greatest head fake of the campaign, leaving most pundits and supporters believing late last night that his pick was Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.
After a tumultuous morning where William Goldman’s adage was proved true (“no one knows anything”), the guessing came to an end. The choice makes sense on multiple levels. The McCain camp has spent the week stirring the pot, playing on the heartstrings of women disappointed by the rejection of Hillary Clinton, first as the Democrats’ presidential nominee and then as the VP pick. In a presidential race dominated by male senators, Palin will have the sole executive experience of the four candidates. And in the battle for “change” there is no candidate who looks more different and comes from further outside Washington than Palin.
His selection is likely to come as a relief to social conservatives who worried that a pro-choice pick was in the offing and to other conservatives who fretted that a Mitt Romney pick would provide a juicy target for the Democrats, who are already strutting their populist rhetoric. How did McCain get to Palin, who was never on the media-created short list of potential candidates?
The choice of Biden almost certainly complicated McCain’s pick. Romney would have exacerbated the “rich guy” problem which was given new life by the flap over McCain’s multiple houses. It seemed too much to have a dozen homes on the Republican side of the ledger, especially when confronting Biden’s carefully cultivated image of a scrappy kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania. And Pawlenty might have seemed too ordinary and was sure to be overshadowed and out-talked in a debate with Biden.
Multiple floats and refloats about Senator Joe Lieberman made their way to the surface. Had Karl Rove tried to nix the pick? Would social conservatives revolt? By late in the week the buzz started that it might be a woman, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson or one of McCain’s economic advisers such as Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina. Late Thursday pundits and McCain supporters still were perplexed and uncertain about the choice, a remarkable achievement in this day of leaks. Given the uncertainty and potential for an intra-party battle, the overwhelming early reaction within Republican ranks is an odd mix of relief and outright excitement. The tour de force maneuver to keep the choice secret certainly shut off the buzz from the Obama speech.
Who is Sarah Palin? She is 44 years old, a former mayor, and the first-term governor of Alaska who ran on an anti-corruption platform. She is a strong advocate of offshore drilling. She is the mother of five including a child with Down Syndrome. In her tenure as Alaska governor she has pursued ethics reform, budget reduction, and natural gas development. In short, she is unlike anyone on either ticket and unlike anyone ever to be on a major party’s ticket. Two large questions loom: How will she handle questions about national security? Will she help McCain?