By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008
WILMINGTON, Ohio -- In her initial days as a vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sought to reach beyond the Republican base to independents and moderate Democrats dissatisfied with Sen. Barack Obama. At campaign events, she praised Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and openly courted her former supporters, while highlighting her own husband's union membership.
But since last week's vice presidential debate, Palin has taken on the role of a more traditional running mate, serving as a fierce critic of Obama and playing to her party's core supporters. Little of the "lipstick" humor of her speech at the Republican National Convention remains, and praise for Clinton, a stump-speech line often met with silence, has disappeared.
Most of Palin's interviews are now with conservative outlets and her campaign appearances in GOP strongholds, where crowds chant her name as she rips into Obama at one stop after another.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this election is about the truthfulness and judgment needed in our next president," Palin told a cheering crowd of more than 1,000 here on Thursday. "John McCain has it, Barack Obama doesn't."
Tracey Schmitt, a Palin spokeswoman, said that the governor has maintained her "broad appeal" and that she remains a powerful force with independents. "The enthusiasm isn't just from the party faithful, but from people who don't traditionally support Republicans and are inspired by a working mom who has a unique and important real-world perspective," she said.
Palin will target fellow hockey moms when she drops the ceremonial first puck at the Philadelphia Flyers game on Saturday night.
But Democratic strategists say Palin's increased attacks will limit her appeal to conservatives. They also contend that she was largely forced into her new role by uneven performances during a series of television interviews that left voters doubting her qualifications.
"The economic trauma of the last few weeks, combined with her stumbles with Katie Couric and the way Tina Fey lampooned them, significantly limits her utility on the stump," said Phil Singer, who was deputy communications director for Clinton's Democratic primary campaign. "She can't use the basic tools that candidates use to reach swing voters."
The Obama campaign has relied on its vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), to counter Palin, and last week he called her focus on connections between Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers and Obama "completely wrong" for a vice presidential candidate to discuss.
The McCain campaign has sought to link Obama to Ayers, who was involved in domestic bombings as part of the Weather Underground group when Obama was a child. Ayers has since become a professor and is involved with education issues in Chicago. Obama attended a political event at Ayers's house in 1995 in support of his first campaign and has sat on education-related boards with Ayers, but the two are not said to be close.
Palin launched some of her attacks on Ayers on Laura Ingraham's conservative talk radio show on Thursday, and criticized Obama as "so far out of the mainstream." A day earlier, she appeared on two Fox News programs -- one with conservative host Sean Hannity and the other with Greta Van Susteren -- and most of her recent national interviews have been with conservative outlets. Palin has also started giving interviews to local television stations, and she spoke with reporters on her campaign plane for the first time this week.
Palin's recent campaign stops have been in Republican bastions, such as Pensacola, Fla., where conservative-heavy crowds cheered loudly as she cast Obama as weak on defense. She promises to uphold a "culture of life," a phrase that McCain rarely invokes in referring to his opposition to abortion rights.
"Our opponents' agenda -- higher taxes and bigger government and activist courts and retreat in war -- that's not the right track for America, that's another dead end," she said in Greenville, N.C., on Tuesday.
Palin's schedule is also packed with fundraisers in front of supporters. Instead of holding any public events Friday, she spent the day at fundraisers in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. She will attend several fundraising events next week as well.
"These are the kinds of things that vice presidential candidates do," said Rich Galen, a top adviser to former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) during his presidential run. "They realized they could maximize her by not having her spend time with McCain."
Amid the initial enthusiasm and curiosity about Palin, McCain advisers said the pair would often appear together. But with McCain's poll numbers falling in many swing states, Palin's solo travels allow the campaign to reach more voters in more places.
The governor draws crowds packed with women who bring their daughters. Much of the enthusiasm is directed at her, rather than McCain, with signs that say things such as "Sarah Is Our Future" and "Read My Lipstick."
Conversely, the crowds at Biden's rallies focus on Obama, with chants such as "Yes, we can," Obama's familiar catchphrase. At Palin events, it's "Sarah, Sarah," leaving it to the Alaska governor to praise McCain.
"Voters are flocking by the thousands to hear her," Schmitt said.
Jennifer M. Palmieri, communications director at the liberal Center for American Progress, said Palin is unlikely to win many independents or former Clinton backers, but doubts that is the campaign's goal at this point.
She "has settled into the role she has always been best suited to play: hero of the conservative base," Palmieri said.