By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008
GREEN BAY, Wis., Sept. 19 -- Gov. Sarah Palin strode past a row of American flags wearing a serious black business suit, her early-morning role to introduce John McCain for a somber speech about the crisis on Wall Street.
"Holy moly!" Palin said at the meeting of the local chamber of commerce on Friday, recalling a campaign pep rally held in the adjacent hockey arena the night before. "That event here, nothing could beat that. That was just amazing!"
McCain, the 72-year-old Washington veteran, and Palin, the 44-year-old first-term governor from the Last Frontier, already look different from any other presidential ticket in history, and as they toured the Midwest this week, they seemed to be forging a new way of campaigning, as well.
She was greeting-card warmth -- "Michigan, I feel your heart" -- to his populist rage against the greed of Wall Street. Together, they each said, they are "a couple of mavericks who are going to shake up" the establishment.
"He's the only great man in the race," Palin says.
He replies: "It's a great pleasure to be introduced by Governor Sarah Palin -- and I can't wait to introduce her to Washington, D.C."
The Alaska governor's introduction to the national stage has moved slowly -- two network interviews, no news conferences, no access for the reporters who travel with her. But her impact on the campaign trail has been immediate: bigger crowds, more women -- and more protests.
At a huge rally in Blaine, Minn., later on Friday, she waded gingerly into foreign policy and talked about a now-canceled rally protesting Iran's nuclear ambitions at which both she and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton were once scheduled to speak.
"Unfortunately, some Democrat partisans put politics first, and now no public officials will be allowed to appear at that Stop Iran rally," she said, not mentioning that Clinton canceled when she found Palin had been invited.
"I will continue to call for sustained action to prevent Iranian President Ahmadinejad from getting these weapons that he wants for a second holocaust," Palin said.
More often, she provides a folksy counterpart to McCain and has proved a magnet for female voters, who sometimes wave lipstick tubes, a reference to her off-the-cuff comment during her acceptance speech that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick. "Read my lipstick" is a best-selling button at campaign events.
While presidential tickets usually split up to cover more ground, McCain likes having Palin along, and they held rallies this week in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well as their first joint town hall meeting in Grand Rapids, Mich., Wednesday night.
It was the first time Palin had answered questions from voters since McCain chose her for the ticket, and the campaign could not have found a safer environment.
Boisterous, blissful Republicans cheered her every utterance. Many questions seemed designed more to allow her to answer critics than to elicit her views. One woman asked about criticism that "you can't be a woman and the vice president" and added quickly, "Which, of course, you can."
"Well, let's prove 'em wrong," Palin responded.
There followed an endorsement from a woman who said she formerly supported Clinton, a request on how to recruit more Hispanic supporters, and a blessing for McCain from a fellow Vietnam veteran: "May the grace of God be with you always, sir."
Palin was a sensation at the Republican National Convention with her barbed acceptance speech. On the campaign trail, she is more prone to peppy declarations -- "Let me tell you, I know a little bit about energy. That's going to be my baby when I get to Washington, D.C." -- and homespun appeals to common folks.
"There's nothing wrong with small towns," she said in Michigan. "In fact, I think all the best people in the world I know come from small towns."
Palin seems a natural campaigner, energetic in a crowd and calm on stage. If there's such a thing as an Alaskan accent, it sounds on Palin a lot like the Upper Midwest, a more subtle version of the actress Frances McDormand in the movie "Fargo."
Palin regularly and seemingly deliberately rounds off words that end in "g" -- the economy is "hurtin' " and needs "fixin.' " After McCain answered a question the other night, she asked, "Can I add somethin'?"
Palin provides blue-collar balance to McCain, who touched off a storm when he couldn't precisely say how many houses he and his multimillionaire wife, Cindy, own. Palin talks of her sister who "just opened a new gas station" and of husband Todd's parents, who run a hardware store.
"She's one of us," Andrea Lawson said after one rally. She carried a "Go Sarah" sign painted with lipstick rather than marker.
Palin makes a special appeal to the parents of special-needs children, and she doesn't have to explain that her infant son, Trig, has Down syndrome when she reaches out to the "many American families that know that some of life's greatest joys sometimes come with some unique challenges."
She also inspires protest. A small but noisy group disrupted her remarks in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, protesting her hard-line antiabortion position, and a more organized protest outside Grand Rapids Community College drew mostly young people.
"Bush in boots" one sign said. Another advised: "Thanks but no thanks to that war in Russia."
She was less than sure-footed in a rambling response Wednesday night to a question asking her to clear up the "perception" that she lacks foreign policy experience.
"Well, I think because I am a Washington outsider that opponents are going to be looking for a whole lot of things that they can criticize, and they can kind of beat the candidate here who chose me as his partner to kind of tear down the ticket," Palin began.
"But as for foreign policy, you know, I think that I am prepared, and I know that on January 20th, if we are so blessed as to be sworn into office as your president and vice president, certainly we'll be ready. I'll be ready. I have that confidence. I have that readiness, and if you want specifics with specific policy or countries, go ahead, and you can ask me. You can play stump the candidate if you want to. But we are ready to serve."
No stump-the-candidate was forthcoming, because McCain piped in to remind, "She's commander of the Alaskan National Guard."
Palin and McCain have differences on some issues. In response to a question on economic empowerment for women, Palin said Wednesday night that she was a "product" of Title IX, the federal legislation that requires educational institutions to provide equal treatment to women in sports.
McCain opposed legislation last spring, prompted by a Supreme Court decision, that would have made it easier for women who had faced pay discrimination to sue. But he tried to make a virtue of the differences.
"What do you expect of two mavericks?" he asked the crowd. "Agree on everything? Eh!"