'High Risk, High Reward'
John McCain Was Looking for a Way to Shake Up His Campaign. He Took a Surprising Gamble on a Relative Unknown.

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.

* * *

McCain's search for a running mate had started in the spring with about two dozen names. Palin was not a serious candidate. One person said she wasn't even on the initial list; others said she was -- barely. It was only later in the summer, when the campaign team became alarmed at the size of Obama's lead among women, that she was added to the list of genuine contenders. "Toward the end of the process, in July, we started taking a look at, like okay, who are we missing? Let's take a sharper look at women candidates and try that one more time," Davis said. "That's when Palin came on." Palin, he added, "stood out significantly from the rest of that list."

Eventually, McCain narrowed his choices to six finalists. In addition to Palin, they were independent-Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman; McCain's former rival, Mitt Romney; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal might have been a finalist had he not taken himself out of contention.

Until days before McCain's deadline, Lieberman appeared to be in the lead, although one top official later said it was never as clear-cut as that. "If you characterize this as yes or no on Lieberman and then someone else [became the top contender], that's not it at all," he said. "Was he the romantic pick? Yes."

Certainly none of the others had the kind of relationship with McCain that Lieberman did. The senator from Connecticut ran for vice president with Al Gore on the 2000 Democratic ticket, but broke with his party over the war in Iraq. In August 2006, he lost his primary election to antiwar businessman Ned Lamont, who attracted enthusiastic support from liberal bloggers furious about Lieberman's support of Bush's war policies. Defeated, Lieberman ran as an independent and was reelected. McCain and Lieberman shared almost identical views on the war. If anything, McCain was a more vocal critic of Bush's policies, but both strongly opposed withdrawal timetables and believed victory could be achieved. They were steadfast in their views when public opinion about the war was running strongly in the other direction.

Lieberman traveled regularly with McCain, who loved him. He admired Lieberman's probity, enjoyed his corny Borscht Belt humor and most of all trusted his judgment. They differed on many aspects of domestic policy, but they saw a dangerous world through the same prism.

Advisers thought picking Lieberman would alter the race, particularly if coupled with the move McCain was seriously considering: a pledge to serve just one term. Virtually all his top advisers favored the idea. Such a pledge had long been talked about inside the campaign. At the time of McCain's announcement in April 2007, the draft of his speech included a statement that he would serve only four years. But Davis strongly opposed the idea, and McCain was dubious, believing that it would unnecessarily limit his power. The pledge was removed less than 24 hours before the speech, according to two advisers, but resurfaced as part of plans for a possible McCain-Lieberman ticket.

The appeal of picking Lieberman was that it would send a powerful signal that a McCain administration would represent an attempt to break out of partisan politics in Washington, that as president he would actively seek to build a governing consensus at the center of the electorate. The one-term pledge would add an exclamation point to this message, allowing McCain to argue that his administration would have but one goal: to clean up a toxic political system in Washington and take on the most intractable issues that had resisted solution without having to worry about how it might affect his reelection. By now, even Davis had softened in his opposition.

"My opposition to it in the primary was that it really was a cheap way to try to win the primary," he later said. "It wasn't worth making that sacrifice for a primary win. . . . That being said, I understood the need for a device like that if you were going to sell Lieberman, because Lieberman was going to be a hard sell."

Both Davis and Culvahouse raised the one-term pledge directly with Lieberman. "My answer to both of them was, 'Hey, guys, I didn't expect to be considered for vice president at all,' " Lieberman told us. "I still think it's a long shot, so you're asking if it happens would I agree to do it for only four years, that's an easy question. Of course I would." Even McCain had come around, according to his most senior advisers. "There would have to be a one-term pledge," one said. "McCain knew that."

McCain's team also knew there would be conservative opposition to Lieberman because of his support of abortion rights and gay rights. It developed a plan to reach out to delegates before the convention, with Charlie Black dispatched to St. Paul, Minn., early for that purpose. As late as the third week of August, the vetting operation was still working hard to finish Lieberman's background checks, questionnaire and personal interview with Culvahouse. Lieberman joked to Culvahouse that the questionnaire was so personally intrusive that the only thing he had not been asked was "whether I had had sexual relations with an animal." (Culvahouse's team found one potentially serious problem with picking Lieberman. Laws in some states prohibited a candidate from running for office from one party or another unless he had been registered with that party for a specified period of time. No one really wanted another Bush v. Gore to sully the 2008 election.)

Ironically, Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Lieberman's main advocates, hurt Lieberman's chances by talking openly about his possible selection, allowing conservative opposition to intensify. "Lindsey was out talking to people before he should have and the story got ahead of us," one McCain adviser said.

McCain's team had circled the three days between the Democratic and Republican conventions as the time to announce its vice presidential choice and scheduled big rallies on all three days to give McCain flexibility to make his decision. But they preferred Friday, Aug. 29, the day after the Democratic convention, as the best way to stop Obama's momentum.

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?

Palin's questionnaire turned up one new piece of information: Her husband had once been arrested for driving while intoxicated. The survey also asked if there was anything particularly sensitive that a prospective candidate preferred to discuss verbally. Palin indicated there was.

At the Delgado house, Palin spoke with Culvahouse. It was now well after 10 p.m. Phoenix time, and their interview lasted between 90 minutes and three hours. She was direct and cooperative, according to officials privy to the conversation, and revealed that her unmarried teenage daughter Bristol was pregnant. When Culvahouse finished, he gave Rick Davis a readout of the conversation.

In the days after her selection, Palin's vetting became a major question, with top officials insisting that nothing of significance had surfaced after her selection. Although they didn't learn of her daughter's pregnancy until she was about to meet McCain, they agreed that it should not be disqualifying. The appearance of haste in choosing her fueled speculation that McCain had acted impulsively. But if there was a breakdown, it appears not to have been in the review but rather in a decision made without a deeper understanding of whether Palin would be judged ready to sit a heartbeat away from the presidency. As one person close to the campaign put it, Palin may have received a thorough legal vetting, but what she didn't receive was a thorough political vetting. Those closest to the decision said that in the weeks before the choice they discussed with McCain the pros and cons of picking Palin as much as they talked about other finalists. They believed the potential reward outweighed the risk.

While Palin talked with Culvahouse, Schmidt and Salter waited impatiently. They approached the decision from different perspectives. Schmidt was more committed. Like Davis, he believed she was the best remaining chance to change the dynamic of the campaign. One of his business partners worked in Alaska; through those contacts, he had become aware of Palin. He checked her with people he knew, and the reviews were positive. She represented a risk, but one Schmidt believed worth taking. Salter was more skeptical, but he was open to the possibility. And he was utterly loyal to McCain.

The two advisers spent an hour or more with Palin, impressing on her the degree to which her life would be turned upside down. Nothing she had ever experienced would prepare her for the scrutiny, the intensity and the outright brutality of a presidential campaign. Schmidt did most of the talking. You're going to be very far from home, he told her. You will have executive and constitutional duties in Alaska, but short of an emergency in the state, you're not likely to be going back. This is incredibly demanding and rigorous. Your advisers and people with opinions back in Alaska will not have a seat at the table. Your job in this race, should this project go forward, is to perform at your highest level of ability every day.

Palin, unruffled and self-confident, said she got it. Salter asked her about her statements in support of creationism. Did she disbelieve the theory of evolution? "No," she told them. "My father's a science teacher." Salter later told journalist and author Robert Draper how "tough-minded and self-assured" Palin was that night.

Early Thursday morning, the group set off for Sedona. The campaign had taken every precaution to preserve secrecy about Palin. The next challenge was getting her to Sedona without being recognized. Christian Ferry bought sun shields to cover the windows of the SUV. The advance team asked the Secret Service to withdraw to an outer perimeter around McCain's compound. The group arrived without incident about 8:30 a.m. McCain greeted Palin, offered her coffee, and then took her down to a bend in the creek where he often liked to sit and watch a hawk's nest in the tree above.

While Palin was being driven to Sedona, McCain spoke to Culvahouse by telephone about the previous night's interview. Culvahouse gave a positive report. She had knocked some of the broader questions out of the park, he told McCain. She would not necessarily be ready on Jan. 20, 2009, to be vice president, but in his estimation few candidates ever are. Culvahouse believed she had a lot of capacity. "What's your bottom line?" McCain asked. Culvahouse later told an audience that he responded, "John, high risk, high reward."

He said McCain replied, "You shouldn't have told me that. I've been a risk-taker all of my life."

* * *

The previous February, McCain had met Palin in Washington when he hosted several governors attending a National Governors Association meeting. She had impressed him during a discussion of energy policy. Palin also was at a reception McCain hosted for Republican governors, and they spent a few more minutes talking that night.

Now they talked for about an hour down by the creek and were joined toward the end by Cindy McCain. That was the extent of McCain's personal interview with the woman he was about to thrust into the national spotlight. When they finished their conversation, McCain took a short walk with Cindy. He then huddled with Schmidt and Salter, who by prior arrangement argued the case for and against her. Schmidt restated his case: McCain needed to scramble the race; Palin's profile would reestablish his reform image; Pawlenty was credible and acceptable, but once the convention was over he would disappear. Salter argued that Palin was untested nationally and a high risk. He also said that, for all the talk about "country first" in his campaign, McCain could be accused of making a political choice designed only to help him win the election, not enhance his ability to govern. Pawlenty, he argued, was solid, had an attractive biography, and could talk to both the Republican base and swing voters.

Their conversation over, McCain returned to the deck of his cabin and offered Palin the job. After pictures were taken, McCain and Cindy left. He would see his running mate again the next morning in Dayton, Ohio.

Advisers later said that the decision was McCain's, that he was in no way forced to take Palin against his better judgment. What persuaded him? In part he believed that, in Palin, he had found a fellow reformer who would help him transform the special-interest- dominated culture of Washington. But there was more to it than that, as Rick Davis later explained. "I think he realized that everything that was an indicator of success in the campaign was pointing down for us," he said. That included the economy, the country's pessimistic mood, the president's unpopularity, and McCain's belief that the media were in Obama's corner. "When you looked at everyone else, they all were good, solid selections in their own right, but who was really going to help us try and push back all these signals that said we were going to lose? Sixty days wasn't enough time to crawl our way back into the election."

Nor did McCain's advisers worry about seeming to give away the experience argument he had been using all summer against Obama; they did not believe that alone could win it for McCain, any more than it had for Clinton. "We couldn't win with experience," Davis said. "McInturff, when he came back on payroll, said experience will get you to 47 [percent]. Well, good luck."

If that was true, however, they had wasted weeks making the case. It was an example of the campaign's inability to settle on a message, emblematic of larger disorganization.

After the McCains departed, Palin and the others waited until they were certain that no reporters remained in the area, then she was driven back to Flagstaff for the flight to Ohio. En route, her plane touched down in Amarillo, Tex., to refuel -- and to refile the flight plan to make tracking the aircraft more difficult for reporters trying to learn the name of McCain's running mate.

McCain's team was determined not to let the choice leak that night, partly out of deference to Obama, who was to give his acceptance speech in Denver. McCain did not want to be accused of sabotaging that event. But his team also wanted the element of surprise to dramatize the choice. The goal was to keep Palin under wraps until the moment she stepped onto the stage in Dayton.

Earlier in the week, the campaign had put in motion a stealthy plan designed to get Palin and her family to Ohio without anyone knowing. Davis White had called Tom Yeilding, a close friend in Alabama who had once done advance work for Vice President Dick Cheney. "I need you to get on a flight to Cincinnati today," White told him. Yeilding, who worked for a company called CraneWorks, protested, saying he was on a construction site. "You're the only one who can do this," White implored him. Yeilding walked off the site and headed for Ohio. His role, as White later put it, was to "catch the package" there on Thursday night. The plan called for Palin and the others to stay at the Manchester Inn in Middletown, 30 miles south of Dayton. Yeilding made reservations for them under the name of the Uptons (Yeilding's bosses). The cover story for airport workers, who might wonder why jets were arriving from Arizona and Anchorage, was that they were part of a family fishing trip in Alaska. Meanwhile, Schmidt had sent his colleague Jonathan Berrier to Alaska to assist in getting Palin's family to Ohio.

Palin arrived early in the evening and was taken to her hotel. Next to arrive were Nicolle Wallace, a former White House communications director who served as spokeswoman for McCain, and Matthew Scully, a former Bush White House speechwriter who would be writing Palin's speech. Schmidt led them to room 508. "I'm about to introduce you to our nominee," he said. No BlackBerry communications, no calls to family.

When they walked in and saw Palin, they were astonished. Wallace remembers Palin that night as "super mellow . . . really calm."

Davis White drove to Dayton at midnight to check out the event site. He found one problem: The lectern was set up for a tall person -- the assumption among the advance team was that Romney was the choice. "When I told them to lower it for someone who was 5-7, they thought it was Bloomberg," White said.

The secret held until morning and then exploded across the country, provoking a sense of disbelief. McCain called Lieberman, who was vacationing on Long Island, to give him the news before it was confirmed publicly. Lieberman was stunned. "I said, 'No kidding!' " he told us. "I was surprised. I said, 'Gee, I don't know much about her.' "

Palin's selection created a frenzy. Reporters scrambled to confirm the choice, then to explain who she was and why she was picked. Few people knew anything about her background or record, including those in the McCain campaign now charged with helping to introduce her to the country. Scully -- who thought McCain had made a bold choice -- had spent part of the night on the Internet gathering information about Palin to include in her speech.

At McCain headquarters in Virginia, the communications team was caught off guard. No one had given members the advance word that they needed to prepare background material. Inundated by media calls trying to confirm the choice, they were helpless, some of them not sure how to pronounce her name. One staffer was frantically trying to download information about Palin when the overloaded Alaska state government Web site crashed. Unable to get answers to basic questions, the campaign gave out inaccurate information, telling one news organization she had been to Iraq when she had only been near the border on a visit to Kuwait. "It was horrific," one campaign official said. "It was a disaster. It was a huge disaster."

Conventional wisdom gyrated wildly in those opening days. Republicans in St. Paul were ecstatic about their new vice presidential candidate, but each day brought new questions or rumors about her. Not all of them were accurate, but enough were to keep alive questions about McCain's judgment.

"Sarah who?" had been replaced by "Who is Sarah?"

"What was John McCain thinking?" had been replaced by "What did John McCain know?"

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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