Palin Made an Impression From the Start

By Dan Balz and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 31, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Aug. 30 -- Their first encounter was last February at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington. Sarah Palin was one of several governors who met privately with Sen. John McCain, by then well on his way to capturing the Republican presidential nomination, and her directness and knowledge were impressive.

Later that day, at a largely social gathering organized by his campaign, McCain spent 15 minutes in private conversation with the first-term Alaska governor. "I remember him talking about her when he came back," a McCain adviser said. "He said she was an impressive woman. He liked her."

But few people outside McCain's inner circle were privy to just how much of an impression Palin had made that day.

In the months of speculation over whom McCain would pick as his vice presidential running mate, Palin's name occasionally surfaced but rarely as a serious choice. But by the time she arrived in Arizona last Wednesday to meet first with two top McCain advisers and then the next day with the candidate and his wife, Cindy, the job was hers to lose.

"He was down to the point that if the meeting had gone well, and it was expected to go well, there was going to be an offer," said a senior adviser privy to the decision-making. "I don't think he would have invited her if it weren't his intention to offer her the job."

Far from being a last-minute tactical move or a second choice when better known alternatives were eliminated, Palin was very much in McCain's thinking from the beginning of the selection process, according to McCain's advisers. The 44-year-old governor made every cut as the first list of candidates assembled last spring was slowly winnowed. The more McCain learned about her, the more attracted he was to her as someone who shared his maverick, anti-establishment instincts.

"He looked at her like a kindred spirit," said one close adviser, who declined to be identified in order to speak more freely. "Someone who wasn't afraid to take tough positions."

Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager and the person at the point of the vice presidential process, said there was no abrupt change of course in the final hours. Nor, he said, was Palin selected without having gone through the full vetting process that was done for other finalists. That process included reviews of financial and other personal data, an FBI background check and considerable discussion among the handful of McCain advisers involved in the deliberations.

"Nobody was vetted less or more than anyone in the final stages, and John had access to all that information and made the decision," Davis said. "It's really not much more complicated than that."

In part to blunt criticism that McCain had pulled a last-minute switch and turned to Palin without all the information he may have needed to make a decision, some of those advisers shared details yesterday about the steps that led to McCain's choice, mostly on a not-for-attribution basis.

Six people were involved in the secretive deliberations that led to Palin's selection: McCain; his wife, Cindy; campaign manager Davis; longtime confidant Mark Salter; senior adviser Steve Schmidt; and key strategist Charlie Black. In addition, Washington lawyer A.B. Culvahouse oversaw the vetting.

Starting last spring, the inner circle met regularly with McCain to review and discuss an initial list of about three dozen possible choices. "He and several of us had multiple meetings," one adviser said. "Discussions, strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates. He asked a lot of questions and listened -- didn't tip his hand to too many of us. He was very insistent that this process often wounds people, and we were to stay very quiet."

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