GREEN, Ohio — President Bush’s unpopularity is the No. 1 problem for the Republican presidential ticket, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said in an interview airing Friday, breaking sharply with the president as the campaign enters its final days.
Palin made her remarks in an interview Wednesday with Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News.” Beginning with that interview and continuing in newspaper interviews and campaign speeches, Palin and Republican presidential nominee John McCain have made it clear that they are determined to disassociate themselves from the president, who registered only a 22 percent approval rating in a New York Times poll released this week.
“We’re up against a lot,” said Palin, the governor of Alaska. “We’re up against a very unpopular president, Bush’s administration right now, and those who want to link us to that administration.”
Palin rejected the comparison as “off base,” contending that McCain, a senator from Arizona, “is known as the maverick, who has had to fight his own party when need be.”
“He has the scars to prove that,” she said.
Two opponents: Obama and Bush
Palin’s comments were a major shot in what has become a campaign against Bush almost as much as one against the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Not since 1968, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey disavowed the Vietnam War policies of President Lyndon Johnson, has a campaign so clearly repudiated the sitting president of its own party.
In an interview Thursday with The Washington Times, McCain spoke of Bush in tones bordering on contempt, ticking off a litany of what he said were the president’s failures.
“Spending, the conduct of the war in Iraq for years, growth in the size of government — larger than any time since the Great Society, laying a $10 trillion debt on future generations of America — owing $500 billion to China, obviously, failure to both enforce and modernize the [financial] regulatory agencies that were designed for the 1930s and certainly not for the 21st century, failure to address the issue of climate change seriously,” McCain told the newspaper.
“We just let things get completely out of hand,” he said of the past eight years of Republican rule.
Friday, McCain extended the theme in an address at a campaign rally in Denver.
“We cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight: hoping for our luck to change at home and abroad,” he said. “We have to act. We need a new direction, and we have to fight for it.”
Obama’s vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, called the new Republican strategy “crazy” Friday.
“John McCain is now attacking the Bush budget and Bush fiscal policies, which he voted for, I might add,” Biden said at a rally in Charleston, W.Va. “Folks, this is as crazy as, you know, Butch Cassidy attacking the Sundance Kid. I mean, that’s a team.”
Prospects for Palin
For Palin, the strategic shift could have long-term implications, in victory or defeat. In recent weeks, political analysts have suggested that should she and McCain lose, Palin, who is highly popular with Christian conservatives, would immediately become a front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination.
Palin dismissed such speculation in the interview Wednesday with NBC News.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” she said. “I’m thinking between now and November 4th what it is that we have to do in reaching out to the electorate, letting them know who John McCain is, what we represent and how electing John McCain is the right decision for future of America.”
Palin, only the second woman to be nominated for vice president by a major party, has become a focus of unusually heavy attention for a No. 2 candidate, occasionally overshadowing McCain and leading some analysts to suggest that she has been a drag on the Republican ticket.
In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll , released Tuesday, 55 percent of respondents said they believed Palin was not qualified to serve as president if the need arose. Palin’s qualifications were the No. 1 concern voters had about McCain’s candidacy, ahead of the economy and the war in Iraq.
For the first time, more voters had a negative opinion of her than a positive one. In the survey, 47 percent viewed her negatively to 38 percent who saw her in a positive light, a striking shift since McCain chose her as his running mate in early September, when she held a 47 percent-to-27 percent positive rating.
But she said Wednesday that she paid no attention to such polls, insisting that “I stay up because I know that it’s a positive message that we have, and I stay up also recognizing that, as an underdog, that’s OK. That motivates us. It makes us work that much harder.”
Turbulent introduction for Palin
Unlike McCain, Obama and Biden, Palin was virtually unknown to most of the country as recently as two months ago, prompting news organizations to send scores of reporters to Alaska to dig into her background. What they have found has led many Democrats and some Republicans to question her qualifications.
Critics said she had no international credentials to speak of as the first-term governor of a state with fewer then a million residents. Palin responded that she had foreign policy experience because Alaska was close to Russia, a contention that Democrats have widely mocked.
She was also criticized for claiming repeatedly that she had opposed federal spending of $398 million on construction of the “Bridge to Nowhere,” linking Ketchikan to the city's airport on Gravina Island, population 50, even though she actively supported the project as governor and did not return the approipriation to the federal government.
Other controversies have followed Palin on the campaign trail.
Palin is the subject of two ethics investigations reviewing allegations that she dismissed Alaska’s public safety director because he would not fire her former brother-in-law from his job as a state trooper. Palin gave a deposition in the case Friday.
Palin’s expense records have also been questioned. When the Legislature is not in session in the state capital, Juneau, Palin lives at home in Wasilla and conducts state business from nearby Anchorage. Since taking office, she has received nearly $17,000 in per diem expenses and has charged the state more than $21,000 for commercial flights and hotel rooms for her children.
The Associated Press, which reported the children’s expenses, found that the state paid for the children’s travel even on trips on which they had not been invited and had no official function .
More recently, financial disclosure forms filed by the Republican National Committee showed that — at a time when McCain and Palin were focusing their campaign on the struggles of middle-class voters — the party spent about $150,000 on clothes, hairstyling, makeup and “campaign accessories” after Palin joined the ticket.
“With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it’s remarkable that we’re spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses,” said Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the campaign, who said the clothing would be donated to charity after the election.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. Mike Memoli of NBC News and NBC affiliate KUSA of Denver contributed to this report.