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'First Dude' illustrates blend of personal, public

As he juggles duties as a father and husband to Alaska's governor, Todd Palin is involved in policy to degree that surprises some observers.
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Todd Palin grew up as the archetypal Alaskan -- salmon fisherman, champion snowmobiler, North Slope oil worker. But since his wife became governor 20 months ago, his portfolio has broadened: househusband, babysitter, senior adviser, legislative liaison, and -- when the occasion warrants -- enforcer and protector.

He has supervised renovations to the governor's mansion and hopscotched by plane back and forth to Juneau to juggle duties as father and "First Dude," as he has come to be known. And to a degree that has surprised many state government observers, Todd Palin also has become involved in policy, sitting in on his wife's meetings, traveling on state business and weighing in on some legislative issues.

John Harris, the Republican speaker of the Alaska House, said he had never been called by the spouse of a governor before the two calls he got from Todd Palin. One was to argue for moving the state capital to Anchorage. The other was to ask Harris to "keep an eye" on a key aide who had an affair with the wife of one of Todd's best friends.

Political hands in both parties say the Palins are often referred to as a team -- "Sarah and Todd" -- and one Democratic lawmaker said Todd Palin has become her "de facto chief of staff."

Meghan Stapleton, a McCain spokeswoman who used to serve as Palin's press secretary, said the presence of Todd Palin has generated unwarranted criticism and that his role is in keeping with that of gubernatorial spouses in other states. "Every bit of his participating is appropriate and pertinent to his role as a spouse and as a father," she said.

"There are definitely critics out there who will blow up his level of involvement because he happens to be a stay-at-home dad when he's off from the slope, and he happens to be an active dad who wants to be with his kids and with his wife when he's not on the slope," Stapleton said.

In many ways, Todd Palin's high profile simply underscores the fine line between the personal and public in Alaska -- a huge swath of land with barely more people than Baltimore, where it can seem as if everyone knows everyone else.

Nationally, even before his wife began campaigning as John McCain's running mate, Todd Palin stood out among the country's few sitting first husbands. In Kansas, Gary Sebelius is a federal magistrate who stays away from wife Kathleen's partisan events and says he does not have time to adopt a favorite issue. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm appointed her husband, management consultant Daniel Mulhern, to a state volunteerism board and gave him a small paid staff, drawing some criticism.

But Todd Palin, 44, the ruggedly handsome four-time winner of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmobile race, was already an Alaska star before his wife's election in 2006. Along with his family duties, he held two jobs, working occasional 85-hour weeks as an oil production operator for BP and, for a month each summer, as a commercial salmon fisherman in Bristol Bay. He belongs to the steelworkers union, an alliance that may partly explain his wife's strong labor support. His Yup'ik ancestry, which traces back to his maternal grandmother, gave her special standing with Native Alaskans.

Since Sarah Palin's rousing speech at the Republican National Convention, Todd Palin has filled a supporting role on the campaign trail, wearing a genial expression but saying little. He gave one interview to Fox News from the family's lakeside home in Wasilla, showing off his snowmobiles and 1958 Piper PA-18 Super Cub plane.

Those who know Todd Palin say he understands the steely determination that has defined his wife's rapid climb to political prominence; he shows the same quality in the Iron Dog races, maintaining his focus at 110 mph over days of competition as Sarah and the children wait at the finish line. Once, recalled racing partner Scott Davis, Todd Palin rode the final 500 miles of a race with a broken arm. "He wouldn't let me take him to the doctor," Davis said. "It said a lot about his character, not giving up."

Though he played a low-key role during Sarah Palin's six years as Wasilla mayor (his name was occasionally invoked in her proclamations congratulating him for his Iron Dog victories), Todd Palin has backed his wife's ambitions, if not always her politics, friends say.

From 1994 to 2002, records show, he was a registered member of the Alaskan Independence Party, whose primary aim is to seek a vote on whether Alaska should remain a state.

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Sarah Palin

View images of her rise from governor of Alaska to a potential presidential contender.

AIP officials say Palin's involvement was limited to attendance at the party's 1994 convention in Wasilla. Doyle Holmes, a hardware store owner who co-chaired the party in 1994, said the convention featured the usual debate over how explicitly to present the independence plank, but he could not recall Palin taking a strong stand. "There's one group that wants [secession] left in the platform and another that wants to tone it down a bit," he said. "Things can get pretty hot."

One Republican from the Mat-Su Valley, who has known the Palins for years but did not want to be identified for fear of repercussions, said Todd Palin's politics over the years have amounted to advancing his wife's career. The Republican recalled that when Willis Lyford, an Anchorage media consultant, told Palin she wasn't ready to run for governor -- a scene recounted in Kaylene Johnson's biography of Sarah Palin -- Todd Palin "blew up."

"He's not political. He's Sarah-oriented, and believes she can do anything -- more than she does," the Republican said.

After Sarah's election as governor, Todd Palin took a leave from his job with BP to avoid a conflict of interest. That gave him more time to help her settle in. Travel records show that he made frequent trips from Wasilla to Juneau and, in total, has run up about $19,000 in travel costs. Among the listed purposes for his trips were meetings about mansion renovations; the Palins wanted to make the house suitable for family visits, although they opted not to live there full time.

Todd Palin took an interest in vocational education and job creation, and he went with Labor Commissioner Click Bishop to tour the Red Dog and Donlin Creek mines, courtesy of the mine owners. Hard-rock mining is a booming industry in Alaska, but it is controversial because of concerns that tailings from the mining could pollute local waters.

Although Stapleton said she is not aware of Todd Palin's informal lobbying on state fisheries issues, lawmakers say he has talked with them about the contentious issue of how to apportion dwindling salmon stocks. His family fishing operation, which last year earned him $47,000 through salmon sales to Peter Pan, a large fish operation, gave him a special perspective. Gov. Palin also appointed one of her husband's fellow Bristol Bay setnetters to the state Fisheries Board.

Todd Palin also has taken interest in issues that affect friends in the Mat-Su Valley, where the Palins live, notably the fight to save the state's half-dozen dairy farms. The overseers of the state-owned dairy that bought milk from valley farmers announced in June 2007 that they would shut it down because it was losing money.

Todd Palin maintained a presence in Gov. Palin's subsequent intervention. She replaced the chief executive and the two boards overseeing the dairy and kept it running long enough for a private dairy to open.

Todd Palin appeared at meetings of the new Creamery Board, and, according to several people involved, at one point called the local Teamsters chapter, which represented dairy employees and had to fend off suggestions by farmers who wanted to cut worker pay to lower costs. Kristan Cole, a Palin friend appointed to head the new Creamery Board, said last week that Todd Palin's role was not significant.

The dairy's workers remember him most vividly as the protective husband who showed up with the governor for a tour, trailed by news media, aides and security guards. Workers told her that food safety regulations forbade her entourage to enter in the absence of the CEO, who was away for a meeting.

Ray Penamora, a gallon-filling machine operator, watched Todd Palin -- not an aide or security guard -- step up to settle the dispute. "He was amazed that they don't let her in," said Penamora. "He said, 'Why not?' "

Rick Koch, who served as the public works director in Palmer, 10 miles from Wasilla, and coached the Palins' son in hockey, said the Palins' mix of public and personal should be understood in the context of their early years in Wasilla. "When Todd and Sarah were growing up, the area was probably 35 percent of what it is now. A lot of adults that age really do kind of know each other," he said. "Things were really small up there."

Koch, now the city manager of Kenai, said he has on occasion called Todd Palin to set up meetings in Juneau on issues of importance to his town. "I've got his cellphone. It's just easier than trying to chase it down a different way," he said.

Harris, the House speaker, was surprised to learn that Todd Palin was with the governor in her office when she called in key legislators to discuss her state budget vetoes. He believes that at times the governor and her husband lose sight of boundaries.

"It's an issue that sometimes emotion gets the better of them," he said. "But they're relatively young and have very quickly been put in the public spotlight."

Stapleton said that Todd Palin sat in on the veto meeting but was there only to look after the couple's infant son, Trig, who was resting in a bassinet.

The extent of Todd Palin's involvement in issues is partly obscured by the refusal of the governor's office to release documents detailing internal communications with him. In a recent response to a citizen's public records request, the office refused to turn over 1,100 e-mails but released a log showing that 44 of those held back were sent to "T. Palin." The log showed him copied on e-mails regarding, among other issues, the union that represents state troopers and a parental-consent abortion bill.

Todd Palin's communications with Walter Monegan, a former public safety commissioner, have entangled him in a legislative investigation into whether he and his wife, along with several top officials, pressured unsuccessfully for the firing of state trooper Mike Wooten. The first couple had accused Wooten, who was in a child-custody battle with Sarah Palin's sister, of threatening behavior. Monegan did not fire Wooten, and the governor removed Monegan from office in July.

Last week, the McCain campaign said that Todd Palin would refuse to comply with a subpoena to testify in the investigation.

He did step in when KTUU-TV, the dominant broadcast station in Alaska, aired a segment describing the many personnel complaints the Palins had brought against Wooten. Todd Palin called to complain. The segment's producer, John Herbst, later resigned after he was reprimanded for failing to treat elected officials with "respect."

Even as Sarah Palin's popularity ratings soar, locals harbor some concerns about the pressures of the couple's lifestyle and Todd Palin's quasi-official status.

Tom Whitstine, a fellow Wasilla conservative, snowmobiler and North Slope oilman, is critical of the Palins. "How he works and his exact position with the administration is pretty gray," he said. "It's not any great secret, but where is the accountability?"

Whitstine also worries about the Palin children. "If Sarah's running the state and Todd's off conducting state business, who's looking after the children?" he said.

Todd Palin told Fox News that son Track is now in the Army, and that Bristol, 17, whose pregnancy was recently made public, "is not high-maintenance." He did not talk about the couple's younger children. Toni Pruski, 17, a friend of Bristol's, said Todd Palin has always been an involved father and "a normal, everyday, family-type dad."

Criticism also has come from some Native Alaskans, who question why Gov. Palin, married to a man with Native ancestry, has kept up legal battles with Native Alaskans over fishing and hunting rights.

Evon Peter, head of the activist group Native Movement and a former chief of the Neetsaii Gwich'in tribe, said, "If she is truly honored that her husband has Native ancestry, she would not be attacking Native Alaskans."

Criticism of the Palins often brings a personal response. Longtime Sarah Palin supporter Bud Knox, a gun dealer and retired plumbing business owner, wrote a letter to the Anchorage newspaper noting that while he and the governor are "close friends," he was concerned by her husband's prominence. "I did not vote for Todd. So keep quiet; I don't need to hear from you," he said.

In short order, the phone rang. It was the governor, calling to respond. "In Alaska, that's the way it works," he said. "Politics doesn't stop at the front door of your house. It goes outside and can go anywhere."

Staff writer James V. Grimaldi contributed to this report.