By Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 30, 2008
DAYTON, Ohio, Aug. 29 -- Sen. John McCain confounded conventional wisdom Friday by announcing first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, a decision that guarantees that either an African American or a woman will ascend to the White House for the first time in history next year.
The senator from Arizona lived up to his maverick reputation, bypassing former rivals and more experienced governors to choose the little-known Palin, 44, as the person "who can best help me shake up Washington."
The self-described "hockey mom" brings a blue-collar conservatism and strong antiabortion views to the ticket and appeals to a party base sometimes suspicious of McCain. She made an immediate pitch to female voters, especially those who had supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries, saying that her selection "could help shatter the glass ceiling once and for all."
But she is also less than two years into her term as governor, and her only previous political experience came as mayor of the town of Wasilla, which has a population of about 6,700. Democrats immediately seized on her lack of political experience, noting that McCain, who turned 72 on Friday, will be confirmed next week as the oldest first-time presidential nominee in history.
After a raucous rally here before what the campaign said were 15,000 supporters -- the largest gathering of McCain's campaign -- the two spent six hours together. They traveled by bus to Pittsburgh, ingratiating themselves to Ohioans as they bought Ohio State Buckeye paraphernalia and stopped for ice cream at a roadside stand.
The trip provided valuable bonding time for two people who acknowledge they barely know each other.
McCain met Palin at a governor's conference in February, and did not see her again until she secretly flew to Arizona on Wednesday night. After a phone interview with the senator on Sunday night, she arrived in the state three days later for a session with McCain's two top lieutenants.
She met with McCain's wife, Cindy, on Thursday morning at the couple's Sedona ranch, then McCain joined them and offered her the job on the deck of the house around 11 a.m. Thursday.
While Palin, pronounced PAY-lin, had been mentioned as a dark-horse candidate for the job, she was never described as being on the shortlist under consideration by McCain. Those who were -- including former presidential rival Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- had spent months doing surrogate duty for McCain around the country, something Palin had not been called on to do.
There were reports of bruised feelings, especially because the McCain campaign's ironclad resolve to keep news of the pick from leaking meant some of the finalists were not told they were not chosen until the last minute.
McCain and Democratic rival Barack Obama, opposites in so many ways, took dramatically different paths in making their vice presidential selections. Obama, 47, a first-term senator from Illinois who is battling the charge that he lacks the experience for the job, chose 65-year-old Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a 35-year member of the Senate and a foreign policy expert.
McCain, a war hero and world traveler who has served in Congress for more than a quarter-century, selected a woman who has no national or international experience and is younger than two of his children, but who he said shares his belief in reform and relishes the role of outsider.
When he ended months of speculation Friday, McCain did not laud Palin as immediately ready to take over, which he once said was his highest priority for a running mate.
Instead, he called her a partner in reform, who would bring an outsider's perspective and a reputation for bucking the Republican Party and the status quo.
"She's got the grit, integrity, good sense, and fierce devotion to the common good that is exactly what we need in Washington today," McCain said. "She knows where she comes from, and she knows who she works for."
Palin was poised in her first turn on the national stage, with her husband, Todd, and four of her five children -- daughters Bristol, Willow and Piper and 4-month-old son Trig -- behind her. She said her oldest son, Track, enlisted in the Army last Sept. 11 and will be deployed to Iraq on Sept. 11 of this year.
"As the mother of one of those troops and as the commander of Alaska's National Guard,'' Palin said she believes that McCain is the "kind of man I want as our commander in chief.''
Palin did not use her first speech to embrace the vice presidential candidate's traditional role of leading the attack on the opposition. Instead, she left no doubt that being the first woman named to the Republican ticket would be a prominent part of her case to voters.
She spoke admiringly of 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro as well as Clinton, whom Ferraro supported in the Democratic primaries.
"It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America," Palin said. "But it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all."
Obama and Biden welcomed Palin to the race, issuing a statement that called her selection "yet another encouraging sign that old barriers are falling in our politics."
But the initial response from an Obama campaign spokesman was much more pointed, saying: "John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000, with zero foreign policy experience, a heartbeat away from the presidency."
Other Democrats were even tougher. "After trying to make experience the issue of this campaign, John McCain celebrated his 72nd birthday by appointing a former small-town mayor and brand new governor as his vice presidential nominee," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). "Is this really who the Republican Party wants to be one heartbeat away from the presidency?"
President Bush said in a statement that McCain made "an exciting decision" in choosing Palin, calling her "a proven reformer" and "champion of accountability in government."
"By selecting a working mother with a track record of getting things done, Senator McCain has once again demonstrated his commitment to reforming Washington."
Palin took over as governor of Alaska in December 2006, becoming the youngest person and the first woman to hold the office. A former city council member and two-term mayor of Wasilla, she bested Gov. Frank Murkowski in the 2006 GOP primary and defeated former Democratic governor Tony Knowles in the general election.
On her campaign Web site, she describes herself as a "conservative Republican" who believes firmly in free-market capitalism, as well as a "lifetime member" of the National Rifle Association who has a strong commitment to gun rights. She also said she opposes abortion and believes that "marriage should only be between a man and a woman."
Religious conservative leaders praised the pick in no uncertain terms. In an interview with the conservative Web site Townhall.com, Focus on the Family leader James Dobson, who has been skeptical of McCain, compared his feelings about the choice to those he experienced with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president. "That was one of the most exciting days of my life," he said. "I feel very much that way today."
The Alaska governor does differ with McCain on some issues, including his opposition to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And while she is considered a crusader for the reform of the state's famously insular political culture, she is also the subject of a state ethics investigation of the involvement of aides and family members in lobbying for her former brother-in-law's removal from the state police force and whether the refusal to do so was connected to her decision to fire the state police commissioner.
Palin has gained a great following in the conservative and evangelical movements by virtue of her strong antiabortion views and the fact that she and her husband, Todd, continued their most recent pregnancy after learning that the fetus had Down syndrome. Their son Trig was born in April.
"How refreshing that now we have a woman who reflects the values of mainstream American women,'' said Janice Shaw Crouse of the conservative group Concerned Women for America.