By Juliet Eilperin and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- Since Sunday night, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been holed up in her suite in the Hilton Minneapolis while a parade of Sen. John McCain's top advisers have briefed her on the nuances of his policy positions, national politics and, above all, how to introduce herself to the national audience she will address Wednesday night at the Republican convention.
Sitting around a dining room table, the McCain team has talked to her about Iraq, energy and the economy, but has focused on what she should say in her speech, struggling almost as hard as she has to prepare for what will be, along with a debate in October, her main opportunity to shape the way she is viewed by voters. Not anticipating that McCain would choose a woman as his running mate, the speech that was prepared in advance was "very masculine," according to campaign manager Rick Davis, and "we had to start from scratch."
By all accounts Palin has thrown herself enthusiastically into preparations for her prime-time debut as well as for her first campaign trip without McCain, expected to be next week. On Tuesday afternoon, she practiced her first run-through of the speech before an audience that included strategists Steve Schmidt, Nicolle Wallace and Mark Salter, who all offered suggestions.
"She's very engaged, she's very enthusiastic," said Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella, who has attended some of the briefing and speechwriting sessions. "She clearly wants to absorb as much information as possible."
Aides to McCain and Palin were still debating elements of the speech, according to several GOP sources familiar with the process, including whether the governor should make reference to her 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy. On Tuesday, Levi Johnston, the high school student Palin has said her daughter plans to marry, left Alaska to join the Palin family at the convention.
In the speech, Palin is likely to emphasize her areas of policy expertise -- particularly energy and political reform -- rather than focusing on her biography or gender. An initial version of the address, which speechwriter Matthew Scully started crafting a week ago for an unnamed male vice-presidential pick, included plenty of attacks aimed at Democratic nominee Barack Obama along with ample praise for McCain, aides said. But they said Palin's speech will focus more on substantive matters.
"There's an expectation that she doesn't have a depth of knowledge on issues," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds. "That's absurd."
The stakes for Palin are much higher than they were for her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has run for president twice and has served in the Senate for 35 years. Several GOP strategists said Palin, who has been governor less than two years, needs to establish herself as someone who is credible as a potential president. "She's like any new person or product on the scene -- she's got to prove she can handle the job, that she's got the presence and suppleness of mind to be a heartbeat away from the presidency," said Ben Ginsberg, who was a senior adviser to McCain's GOP primary rival Mitt Romney.
In an effort to prevent any damaging mistakes, the McCain campaign is orchestrating Palin's public introduction carefully. Except for an interview with People magazine the afternoon her selection was announced, she has not taken a single question from a reporter, and it remains unclear when she will speak to the national news media.
McCain and his allies are hoping to present his running mate as a like-minded reformer who will pursue the same approach to governing. Campaigning with her over the past few days, McCain presented her time and again as a fighter.
"A lot of candidates talk about reform, changing the failed policies of the past, but often they find after they're elected they leave things as they are," McCain said. "Not Governor Sarah Palin -- not Sarah Palin."
In her own remarks on the trail, Palin has worked to burnish her leadership credentials, repeatedly referring to her time in the governor's office. After listing McCain's national security attributes at one point, she declared, "As the mother of one of those troops and as the commander of Alaska's National Guard, that's the kind of man I want as our commander in chief." At another point, she heralded his willingness to cut wasteful spending, noting that she had done it herself: "Senator McCain promises to use the power of the veto in defense of the public interest, and as a chief executive, I can assure him: It works."
Still, Palin will take the stage Wednesday night amid a series of questions about her political résumé that have, at a minimum, created distractions from the convention message the McCain campaign has sought to present.
On Tuesday, the McCain campaign angrily countered reports that Palin was a member of the Alaska Independence Party, producing records showing that she has been a registered Republican since the early 1980s. Later in the day, media reports revealed that her husband, Todd Palin, was registered as a member of the party until 2002.
Alaskans continued to question her position on the "Bridge to Nowhere," a nearly $400 million span connecting the small town of Ketchikan with a remote island to make transportation to its airport easier. Palin seemed to indicate that she supported the bridge while campaigning for governor in that region in 2006, but last fall she ended the project because cost overruns far exceeded the initial $223 million that was allocated.
While McCain's backers are comfortable that Palin's record meshes neatly with his when it comes to challenging the status quo -- Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said the governor "has shown guts and toughness on a central theme in this campaign in a way that will resonate with the American public" -- they are working on how to bolster her foreign policy bona fides.
Palin has rarely traveled overseas: Last summer, as governor, she journeyed to Canada on one trip and to Germany, Iraq and Kuwait on another, and Comella said she may have traveled to Mexico once on a personal trip.
"Obviously the governor of Alaska spends very little time on foreign policy," Davis said, though he added that if something were to happen to McCain, "I think she's got the judgment to do the things as commander in chief that John McCain would think are the right things to do."
Graham, who lobbied hard for McCain to choose their mutual friend Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) as his running mate, said Palin would be able to handle foreign relations in McCain's absence as long as she relied on his staff.
"She can do fine in foreign policy because of the infrastructure we have around us. She's smart and she will learn over time," he said, adding that when it comes to selecting a vice president, "there is no perfect person. If we could have found someone who's an expert in everything, we would have picked 'em, right?"
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.