'High Risk, High Reward'

By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
Monday, August 3, 2009

Adapted from the book "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election"

A black car pulled up next to the stairs of a Learjet parked at the executive terminal at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Inside was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, driven by her husband, Todd. It was shortly before 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008, and Palin had just finished an appearance in town. She told Todd goodbye and, along with aide Kris Perry, boarded the plane quickly, lest anyone notice her leaving. In minutes she was airborne. All arrangements had been handled in strict confidence.

Twenty minutes into the flight, she was handed a phone-book-sized packet of materials by Davis White, John McCain's director of advance, who had slipped into Alaska late Monday night to oversee the secret journey. The packet contained her reading for the long flight south: McCain's speeches, a schedule and other background on the campaign. White explained two possible outcomes. They would fly to Boeing Field in Seattle to refuel, and then on to Flagstaff, Ariz. She would meet with McCain on Thursday morning. If all went well, she would become his vice presidential running mate and not see Alaska for many days. If not, she faced a quick trip home and a return to relative obscurity.

What happened next is the extraordinary tale of how a campaign desperate to shake up the race took a huge gamble that would dog McCain until Election Day.

In conservative circles, Palin had begun to develop a following, but she still remained a dark-horse candidate whose inexperience made her a risky choice for the Republican ticket. She had been in office less than 20 months and, though popular at home, had remained out of the national debates. But as her plane headed to Arizona, she now had the inside track to win the job of McCain's running mate.

McCain believed he needed someone dramatic to transform the presidential race. Though he had knocked Barack Obama back in early August with ads featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton that belittled his celebrity appeal, everyone around McCain knew that was merely a summertime diversion, a tactical exercise that quickly would be overwhelmed by Obama's convention. The McCain team may have mocked Obama's Greek temple setting in Denver, but it needed a real strategy, propelled by a bold choice for vice president, to preserve any hope of winning in November.

As McCain approached his convention, his advisers saw the challenges as overwhelming -- and contradictory. First, he needed to distance himself decisively from the president. Second, he needed to cut into Obama's advantage among female voters. Despite the bitterness of the primaries and some of the mutinous talk among Hillary Rodham Clinton's most vocal holdouts, the polls showed Obama consolidating most of the Clinton vote. By midsummer, this had become an acute problem for McCain.

Third, he needed to energize the lethargic Republican base. While polling showed McCain now winning roughly the same level of support among Republicans as Obama was receiving among Democrats, McCain enjoyed little enthusiasm among conservatives. They might turn out to vote for him -- might -- but would they staff local offices, make phone calls, knock on doors, contribute money, and rally friends and neighbors as they had done for President Bush four years earlier? Fourth, and perhaps most important, McCain had to regain the one advantage he had always counted on: his identity as a reformer. As senior adviser Steve Schmidt put it, "We had to get that reform mojo back."

Obama had gone the safe route in his selection of Joe Biden, a do-no-harm pick that followed the classic vice presidential manual. McCain did not have such a luxury -- or so argued some of his closest advisers. Schmidt and campaign manager Rick Davis believed McCain's only hope of winning was to make an out-of-the-box choice. If we pick a traditional candidate and run a really good race, Schmidt told top adviser Mark Salter late one night, we still lose.

Palin arrived in Flagstaff after dark. Christian Ferry, McCain's deputy campaign manager, met the plane and drove the group to the home of Robert Delgado, the CEO of Hensley & Co., the large beer distributorship started by Cindy McCain's father. Though it was late, Palin still had a long night ahead of her. Waiting there to see her were Schmidt and Salter. Waiting back in Washington to talk to her by telephone was A.B. Culvahouse, a White House counsel under Ronald Reagan who was in charge of the vetting process and needed to conduct the all-important personal interview. Waiting in Sedona to receive her the next morning was McCain. McCain's team now had barely 12 hours to complete the vetting process, take a face-to-face measure of their leading candidate, decide whether McCain and Palin had the chemistry to coexist as a ticket, and make a judgment about whether she was ready for the rigors of a national campaign.

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