With Pick, McCain Reclaims His Maverick Image

Advisers say John McCain had hoped to shake up the race. In choosing as his running mate Sarah Palin -- a virtually unknown Washington outsider -- he succeeded.
Advisers say John McCain had hoped to shake up the race. In choosing as his running mate Sarah Palin -- a virtually unknown Washington outsider -- he succeeded. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 29 -- John McCain's advisers predicted weeks ago that the presumptive Republican nominee would use his national convention week to try to recapture his image as a maverick reformer and shake up the presidential race. He did just that Friday with his surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate.

McCain's selection of the nationally untested Palin is the most unlikely choice of a running mate since George H.W. Bush tapped then-Sen. Dan Quayle in 1988, a move as risky as it was bold. The decision brings the senator from Arizona immediate dividends with his base and eventually, perhaps, with swing voters. But it comes at potentially significant cost to his effort to discredit Democratic nominee Barack Obama as unprepared for the presidency.

The choice of Palin, the first woman named to a Republican presidential ticket, adds another chapter to a campaign that, mostly on the Democratic side, has been about breaking down racial and gender barriers in America. McCain's hope is that, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) now on the sidelines, Palin can help close a sizable gap with Obama among female voters that threatens to block his path to the White House.

Picking Palin also helps McCain consolidate his party's conservative base, which has been at best lukewarm toward his candidacy. The governor's conservative credentials are not in doubt, whether on abortion or gun rights or gay rights. The announcement of her elevation to the Republican ticket brought an outpouring of enthusiasm from the right flank of the GOP and will assure a more energized convention next week in St. Paul, Minn.

But what tipped the balance toward Palin was that she gives McCain a partner with a record of challenging the establishment in her own party and in Anchorage, reinforcing the case that he would be more fearless and effective than Obama in taking on special interests in Washington.

"I have found the right partner to help me stand up to those who value their privileges over their responsibilities, who put power over principle, and put their interests before your needs," McCain said in introducing Palin on Friday. "I found someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies; someone who has fought against corruption and the failed policies of the past."

But in turning to Palin, who is halfway through her first term as governor and who previously served as mayor of the small town of Wasilla, outside Anchorage, McCain risks ceding the most effective argument he and fellow Republicans have made against Obama. For months, Republicans have attacked the senator from Illinois as not ready to be president. Now McCain has put someone who Democrats argue has even less experience one election and a heartbeat away from the presidency.

He also has gambled that the governor of a geographically large but sparsely populated state can make the transition to the national stage, with no opportunity for an off-Broadway tryout. Unlike some of the established politicians who were believed to be under consideration, Palin is a total newcomer to the national spotlight and thus vulnerable to making the kind of mistakes that would raise questions about McCain's judgment.

But Mark Salter, one of McCain's closest confidants, said Friday that the campaign will argue that Palin's experience actually exceeds Obama's, both as an executive and as a hard-charging reformer willing to take on not just special interests but her own party as well. "Obama has no such record," Salter said.

McCain's campaign has exuded confidence of late after a month in which it pounded Obama as an elitist and a lightweight celebrity. But the choice of Palin hints at the underlying anxiety within its inner circle that the fundamentals of this election year still favor Obama and the Democrats. McCain was looking for ways to counter the Democrats' argument that he is merely an extension of President Bush and concluded that he needed a game-changing decision, with all the risks that entailed.

He had safer and more conventional options, although those perhaps became less attractive as he watched the Democrats celebrate Obama's historic nomination in Denver.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was one of those alternatives, although the uproar over the many homes McCain owns perhaps made the wealthy businessman a problematic choice. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was another, a conservative with blue-collar roots. But the more Minnesota looks like an uphill climb for McCain, the less Pawlenty might have been able to do for the GOP ticket.

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