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."
"We obviously were looking at a lot of different options," another adviser said. "We looked at base options, women, pro-choice, pro-life, people outside the party. It was a very broad and deep search. Most of the people we checked out never made it into the public domain, and some speculated on were very, very competitive for the job."
But this adviser added that because the process was so leak-free, the public knew little about the actual deliberations, and the campaign did not try to knock down incorrect speculation.
"It's a little naive on the part of the media to assume because they weren't reporting this [Palin's consideration] for the last few months, there's something up on this," this adviser said. "We didn't spend any time saying yes or no to any of the speculation -- just because everyone thought it was going to be Mitt Romney for a month, and then it was going to be Joe Lieberman for a month."
Aides said there were candidates even less known than Palin under consideration at points in the process. And, they argued, Palin is more experienced and capable than critics of the choice know. "She's got an ability that far exceeds her tenure in office."
'All Good Surrogates'
In public handicapping late last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney were seen as two of the finalists. Both had been dispatched to the Democratic National Convention as Republican surrogates, and their appearances there were described as final auditions for the position.
McCain aides scoffed at that characterization, calling it pure coincidence. "These guys are all good surrogates. They've done a thousand hours of surrogate work," one McCain adviser said. "I don't think we needed to audition anybody at the Democratic National Convention a week before ours. It's wonderful to fill cable time with it, but it's just nonsense."
Still, Romney and Pawlenty attracted considerable attention in Denver. When Pawlenty abruptly left there on Thursday, his disappearance sparked speculation that he was McCain's choice. One report said he had been given an informal heads-up only to be told later that there had been a sudden change in thinking in the McCain camp. A Pawlenty adviser who had been in contact with the governor through the day said he had gotten no such hint, and McCain advisers dismissed the report as unfounded.
According to one McCain adviser, Davis ordered Pawlenty to leave Denver in part because he was so bombarded by questions about the vice presidency that he couldn't deliver a tough, anti-Obama message. Davis also knew the campaign was about to make clear that McCain had made his selection and did not want Pawlenty put in an uncomfortable position.
Among others who received serious consideration was Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat-turned-independent who had become one of McCain's closest friends and his traveling companion. His possible selection drew a sharply negative reaction among conservatives because Lieberman supports abortion rights and differs with McCain on many domestic issues.
Another name that was floated was that of former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a fellow Vietnam veteran and longtime friend of McCain. But he, too, supports abortion rights.
Aides insisted that the backlash against Lieberman and Ridge did not influence McCain, that it was his genuine attraction to Palin as a fellow reformer that carried the day. "Sure we got some grass-roots negative feedback," one adviser said. "That was not likely to sway McCain. . . . He had a lot of good choices, including Lieberman. He liked a number of his choices."
McCain's advisers conducted interviews with a number of the prospective choices, but McCain did not. Most he knew well enough to have a sense of their personalities, policy positions and character. Among those who never met personally with McCain was Romney. The two men had waged a bitter and often-personal battle for the Republican nomination and when the primaries ended, Romney seemed an unlikely choice because of their distant personal relationship.
But since then, the relationship had improved notably. His background as a business executive and his Michigan roots appeared to make him a good fit with McCain.
On Thursday, Romney happened to be on a fundraising tour in California -- with businesswoman Meg Whitman, who was also talked about as a possible McCain pick. Both were in the dark about their prospects, which became more and more awkward as reporters asked questions they could not answer.
Finally, Romney aides called the McCain campaign and pleaded for information, according to a person who talked with him throughout the process. McCain called Romney on Friday morning to tell him he had not been picked.
Spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney harbors no ill feelings toward McCain, having never believed he would be the running mate. "It never seemed likely to us because they disagreed on some issues during the primaries, and there were so many other good Republicans to choose from, including Sarah Palin," he said. But some close associates said that Romney's advisers were angry about having been strung along until the last minute.
McCain aides were under pressure not to allow the name of McCain's running mate to leak on the final night of the Democratic National Convention, fearing that would be seen as a deliberate attempt to draw attention away from Barack Obama's acceptance speech.Hers to Lose
For all the focus on Pawlenty, Romney and Lieberman, Palin was the leading candidate by the beginning of last week. Davis had spoken with her a number of times. The McCain camp had reviewed everything it could find on her, including videotapes of her public speeches and interviews. "She makes a great speech," one adviser observed.
Last Sunday night, McCain talked to Palin by phone from Arizona in what aides described as a somewhat-lengthy call that resulted in McCain asking her to come to Arizona.
On Wednesday Palin flew to Flagstaff. That night she conferred with Schmidt and Salter. The next morning around 7, the three of them, along with a Palin aide, climbed into an SUV with tinted windows to begin the 45-minute drive to McCain's retreat in Sedona.
When they arrived, McCain offered Palin some coffee before taking her to a bend in a creek on the property where there are places to sit and a hawk's nest looming above. It is one of McCain's favorite places, and the two talked alone there until they were joined by McCain's wife, Cindy, who is described as having played a key role throughout the selection process.
After about an hour, Palin joined her aide on the deck of McCain's cabin, while the candidate and his wife went for a walk along the creek. When they returned, McCain held one last session with aides Schmidt and Salter. Then he offered Palin the job. The deal was sealed "with a handshake, a pat on the back," one adviser said.
All that was left was one more secretive trip, from Arizona to Dayton, where the announcement was going to be made at a rally at Wright State University. Salter and Schmidt accompanied Palin on that final leg, and her family in Alaska was alerted only at the last minute that a plane was being sent to bring them to Ohio.
Early Friday morning, Palin's name finally began to leak. But that did nothing to mitigate its complete surprise.
"We have high confidence in her ability to demonstrate to the people of the United States that she's ready to be vice president," a senior campaign official said. "And Senator McCain thinks she's prepared to be vice president, with all the duties and responsibilities there."