By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
LEBANON, Ohio, Sept. 9 -- Susie Baron is a Republican, a mother of two and a home-schooler. She voted for Mike Huckabee in the Ohio primary, but now -- because of Sarah Palin -- she thinks she is part of something much bigger.
"I wouldn't even call it a Palin movement, I'd call it a sleeping giant that has been awakened," Baron, 56, said at a rally here Tuesday. She described its members as a silent majority of women in Middle America who "are raising our families, who work if we have to, but love our country and our families first."
"And until now, we haven't had anyone to identify with," Baron said, adding that traditional feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women do "not represent me."
Since her rapid transition from obscure Alaska governor to GOP vice presidential nominee, Palin has reenergized the presidential race and also further polarized it, setting her instant fan base, which sees her as a pit bull with lipstick, against those who dismiss her as just another Republican who happens to be a woman and seems intent on rekindling a culture war.
The crowd that came to see her here Tuesday showed that Palin's support is rooted in conservative women such as Baron, with the addition of some independents and even Democrats -- women who are "fed up with a man's world," as one rally attendee said, and in some cases dispirited by the treatment of Palin and of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary race.
On the campaign trail, Palin has read the same remarks at each stop from notes or a teleprompter. She has answered no questions, except from People magazine, although she will give her first sit-down interview, to ABC News, this week. But her mere presence has been enough to generate huge enthusiasm.
The McCain and Obama campaigns are rushing to assess what the Palin force will represent. If it is a small but energized group of Republican women, it could have only marginal impact; if it is more, it could tip the balance of the campaign. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Palin has also mobilized liberal women.
"There's no doubt she has helped solidify and energize the right wing of his party," senior Obama adviser Anita Dunn said of Palin and McCain, while acknowledging that Palin has drawn the curiosity of people "who are not movement conservatives."
"She's new, and a good performer of that speech that she reads, but that doesn't necessarily translate into votes eight weeks from now," Dunn said. "Obviously, people are going to be interested, because she's new, but the more you learned about her, the more you see she's like any other politician, male or female."
Other Obama advisers said that once women across the board begin considering Palin's stands on social issues such as human embryonic stem cell research and legalized abortion -- she opposes both -- their interest will fade. That was a line of attack used by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic vice presidential candidate, when he was asked Tuesday whether Palin's election would mean a step forward for women. "Look, I think the issue is: What does Sarah Palin think? What does she believe? I assume she thinks and agrees with the same policies that George Bush and John McCain think," Biden said. "And that's obviously a backward step for women."
The Republican National Committee responded by calling Biden's remarks "appalling and arrogant" and saying they are "better suited for the backrooms of his old boys' club."
"Sarah Palin's nomination as the Republican vice presidential nominee is a historic opportunity to break the highest glass ceiling," RNC spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said.
Several senior officials in both parties said they think Palin's attraction is the result, in part, of a generally negative mood among some female voters this year, first, as Clinton faced a "boys' club" mentality in the Democratic primaries and then as Palin faced intense questioning, much of it highly personal, after McCain named her as his running mate.
To Republicans, Palin's burst onto the national scene could be a chance to redefine the nature of feminism in politics, recasting it beyond traditionally liberal issues such as abortion rights. "I hope so, because I think it's been unfortunate that it's been so closely pegged, so closely defined, to just a few issues," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Murkowski, whose father lost to Palin in a 2006 gubernatorial primary, said Palin represented a "generational shift" for voters in her state, something that will bode well for her ability to appeal to younger female voters.
While Democrats reject the notion that Palin will somehow transform gender politics once her views are known, a few acknowledged that they have had little success in trying to define her. "I think there may be some hand-holding, but nobody's gone on a date yet," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), a prominent Obama supporter who predicted that female voters will eventually return to his camp.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) said the issues that matter to female voters, not Palin's sudden rise to the national stage, will determine their votes in November, but she said the Democrats need to explain those policy differences. "I think it's our job to show the truth. They are more focused on an agenda than a gender," Klobuchar said.
After just a week, Palin is as popular as either Obama or McCain. White women in particular express favorable views of the Alaska governor, according to a newly released Washington Post-ABC News poll. Positive ratings of her spike to 80 percent among white women with children at home and among white women who are evangelical Protestants.
The percentage of white women with "strongly favorable" opinions of McCain jumped 12 percentage points from before the parties' national conventions. And nearly six in 10 white women in the new poll said McCain's selection of Palin increased their confidence in the decisions he would make if elected. In the Post-ABC poll, it is white women who helped McCain erase Obama's late-August advantage and seriously cut into the Democratic nominee's lead as the one who would bring more needed change to Washington.
Republican adviser Juleanna R. Glover calls Palin "the future of the GOP," and that was certainly the consensus at this stop in Ohio on Tuesday. McCain and Palin performed a ritual of Republican politics, speaking from a stage in front of the Golden Lamb Hotel, billed as Ohio's oldest inn. More than 5,000 guests filled the streets, packing it as fully as it had been four years earlier, when President Bush made the same stop.
But this event was more reminiscent of the Clinton campaign earlier this year: Mothers held their young daughters on their shoulders to catch a glimpse of Palin. Women held up pro-Palin signs and wore "I Love Sarah" stickers. One sign read "Working Mom 4 Palin." Another: "Strike Oil with Sarah." And another: "Outspoken Conservative Moms for Palin."
Like other women in the crowd, Baron, the home-schooler from Maineville, Ohio, expressed frustration that feminism and women's issues have seemingly been owned by Democrats whose values she does not share.
Julia Burns, 72, a Republican from Lebanon, cut in: "Men had better jump back. Women are going to take over. We're sick and tired of playing by men's rules. We're coming out of the ground, and they had better move out of the way."
Staff writer Paul Kane and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.