Page 3 of 5   <       >

'High Risk, High Reward'

On Sunday morning, Aug. 24, McCain's senior staff members met at the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix to review their options. The group included Rick Davis, Schmidt, Charlie Black, pollster Bill McInturff, media adviser Fred Davis, and senior adviser Greg Strimple, although only Rick Davis, Schmidt and Black had been privy to the details of the selection process. During the meeting, McInturff went through the results of his latest polling and analysis. He argued that McCain's position had improved since early July, particularly in battleground states. But much work remained.

McCain needed to reinforce his maverick label; a Republican would have trouble winning in November but a maverick McCain might be able to do so. Given the political climate, McCain would need an unconventional and unorthodox campaign and message.

But McInturff raised serious questions about picking Lieberman, or anyone who favored abortion rights, as a vice presidential running mate. That included Bloomberg and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge. Days earlier, McInturff tested abortion-rights attitudes in a poll. Forty percent of McCain's core supporters said they would be less likely to support him if he selected a running mate who backed abortion rights.

McInturff sketched out a possible doomsday scenario. First, he said, there was no way anyone could predict or control how the selection of a running mate who supported abortion rights would be covered by the media. Would the story line be "McCain the maverick" -- as everyone hoped -- or would it be "McCain shatters the Republican coalition"? Second, he asked, had anyone read the rules of the convention? Majorities of just four state delegations could force a roll call on the vice presidential nomination. Picking a running mate like Lieberman virtually guaranteed a divisive floor fight over abortion. While McCain might be able to impose his choice in St. Paul, the damage would be too costly. The story in September would be about a divided Republican Party, not about McCain's position on the economy or the war or his criticisms of Obama. Others in the campaign later said McInturff's analysis ended any realistic chance of Lieberman becoming vice president, although one senior official said McCain had not ruled out Lieberman even at that point.

The group briefed McCain that afternoon. McInturff shared his findings and repeated his assessment of what could happen in St. Paul. McCain listened, but "John was very inscrutable," one person who attended the meeting recalled. "He was in his quiet, subdued, shoulder-hunched listening mode. . . . We said to each other after the meeting, 'From that conversation, we have no clue.' "

At that point, there seemed to be only two realistic finalists: Pawlenty and Palin, although media speculation focused mostly on Pawlenty and Romney. Romney's star had risen over the summer. He was not a Washington insider and could talk about the economy in ways McCain could not. Furthermore, his relationship with McCain had warmed considerably since the primaries. McCain was impressed by how hard Romney was willing to work to get him elected. Romney's prospects may have ended after a McCain gaffe the previous week. In an interview with Politico, the candidate said he couldn't remember how many homes he and Cindy owned, making him sound badly out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans. Romney owned four homes. Amid such economic hardship, Republicans could not present voters with nominees who between them owned nearly a dozen homes.

Pawlenty was young and vigorous, a conservative who had grown up in a blue-collar family -- his father was a truck driver -- and he was anti-abortion. He had won reelection in the Democratic year of 2006 and was seen as a future leader of the GOP, an advocate of modernizing the party without abandoning its conservative principles. Though not particularly flashy, he was seen as a more than credible choice, a running mate who might keep the Upper Midwest competitive. He was the safe choice if Palin faltered.

That Sunday night, Rick Davis and Schmidt went alone to see McCain at his apartment in Phoenix. They urged him to take a hard look at Palin. Davis had been talking with her regularly all through August as part of a confidential plan designed to keep secret the fact that she was even under serious consideration. That weekend, Davis checked with Culvahouse to ask if he could complete a thorough vetting of Palin in the short time remaining. Culvahouse said he could. With that reassurance, McCain called Palin, who was at the Alaska State Fair, and invited her to come to Arizona to meet with him.

* * *

By the time Palin arrived at Delgado's house on Wednesday night, Culvahouse's team members already knew much about her. They had scoured the public record. They had looked closely at an investigation that came to be known as "Troopergate." The investigation centered on whether Palin had pressured and then fired the state public safety commissioner, Walter Monegan, after he refused to fire her former brother-in-law, who was in a divorce and child-custody fight with her younger sister. Culvahouse's team examined Palin's tax returns and other financial records. Nothing appeared amiss. A small blemish did turn up: Palin had once been fined for fishing without a valid license.

Culvahouse did not send Palin the lengthy questionnaire that all finalists were asked to complete until McCain invited her to Arizona. The survey ran to 70 questions. Some were highly intrusive, the kind once saved for a personal interview: Did you ever fail to pay taxes for household help? Have you ever filed for bankruptcy? Have you undergone treatment for drug or alcohol abuse? Have you ever downloaded porn from the Internet? Have you ever paid for sex? Have you ever been unfaithful?

<          3           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company