Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is as dramatic a contrast as one can envision with Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.
The differences between the presidential candidate and his running mate are so stark that it’s hard to assess which one is boldest: age (she’s nearly 30 years younger than McCain); sex (she’s the first woman ever to be on a Republican ticket); political experience (she’s been a governor for less than two years; he’s served in Congress for 25 years); or geographical remoteness (no Alaskan has ever appeared on a national ticket).
She represents the most audacious gamble in McCain’s career and a gamble with the fortunes of the Republican Party.
She’s untested on the national stage and unknown to political insiders in Washington and in the national news media.
Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis called the Palin pick "a bold and historic move for the Republican Party that clearly targets women and conservative voters, but does little to change the fact that McCain's Bush-like policies would be disastrous for all Americans — especially women."
And Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton warned that McCain had "put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency."
But McCain's gamble may be worth it if he can get more women to support the Republican ticket.
In her debut speech in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday with McCain by her side, Palin noted the historic nature of her candidacy.
“It is fitting that this trust has been given to me almost 88 years to the day after the women of America first gained the right to vote,” she declared.
Palin made a pitch directly to women and especially Democratic women voters by lavishing praise on 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and Sen. Hillary Clinton, who lost the Democratic nomination to Sen. Barack Obama.
Clinton “showed such determination and grace in her presidential campaign,” Palin told the cheering Republican crowd.
“It turns out the women of America are not finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”
There was surely something strange and unprecedented to see a candidate for vice president speak to the Dayton crowd as one of her daughters nestled Palin’s five-month old baby son in her arms right behind her.
Palin told the crowd that her older son, Track, had enlisted in the Army on Sept. 11, 2007.
“As the mother of one of those troops and as commander-in-chief of Alaska's National Guard," McCain is "the kind of man I want as our commander in chief," she said.
An appeal to women?
What’s sometimes forgotten or misunderstood about the 2004 election is that the majority of married women voted for President Bush over Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Bush won 55 percent of married women, according to exit poll interviews. Among women with children, Bush and Kerry split their votes about equally.
Palin offers McCain the opportunity to strengthen this Republican edge.
If modern presidential elections are partly or even mostly an attempt to get voters to believe a candidate understands them, then mothers all across the United States could see their lives in Palin’s.
With five children and a state government to run, she’s the epitome of the high-energy working mom.
But the extreme age contrast will remind voters of just how old McCain is. The Arizona senator celebrates his 72nd birthday today.
When Palin was born on Feb. 11, 1964, McCain was already well launched on his career as Navy aviator. When he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, she was still a teenager.
“This would be a pretty shrewd pick, but one not without risk,” said Republican consultant Jason Roe, a few hours before McCain revealed his choice.
Roe asked a question sure to be repeated in the coming days: “How will she perform in the debate with Sen. Biden on foreign policy? He has a command of foreign policy details that few people in Washington have. She will have to cram like it’s her college finals.”
The image of the gray-haired, 40-year Washington insider, Biden, battling against the 44-year old governor of Alaska as they spar over Iran’s nuclear weapons or Islamic radicalism in Pakistan is an intriguing one.
Palin represents a decisive break with Republican spending habits and the political insider culture of the past.
In his introduction of Palin, McCain portrayed her as a McCain-like maverick and an ordinary mother who understood the struggles of other parents.
“The person I'm about to introduce to you was a union member and is married to a union member and understands the problems, the hopes and the values of working people, knows what it's like to worry about mortgage payments and health care and the cost of gasoline and groceries,” he said.
He added that “she's not from Washington” and that “she's fought oil companies and party bosses and do-nothing bureaucrats and anyone who puts their interests before the interests of the people she swore an oath to serve.”
“She's exactly who I need. She's exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of me first and country second," he argued.
She has been an opponent and critic of her state’s senior senator, Ted Stevens, who is now under indictment for concealing payments he allegedly received from political patrons.
She defeated Alaska governor (and former senator) Frank Murkowski, another gray-haired veteran of Washington D.C., in a primary in 2006.
She meets the standards that most Republican activists expect in her anti-abortion and pro-death penalty views.
MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan, himself a former Republican presidential contender in 1992 and 1996, said, “She’s an NRA (National Rifle Association) lifetime member, she’s a right-to-life feminist, she has every credential as a conservative, she is young, she's exciting, she’s a mom with five kids.”
But, he cautioned, “The huge gamble is that John McCain is 72, he’s had a couple of bouts with cancer.” If McCain wins the election, but then were to die or become disabled, Buchanan wondered, “Can this woman be President of the United States?”