A loyal Democrat, Kenny Powers never shared Sarah Palin's conservative politics. But the United Way organizer confesses a fondness for the governor who paired a folksy charm with scorn for Alaska's Republican old guard.
"She was such a breath of fresh air," he says.
That was then. Nearing the end of a bruising campaign, the Republican vice presidential candidate has seen her appeal to her party's conservative base feed speculation about a future national campaign at the same time increasing numbers of others recoil from her.
"She changed her personality," Powers, 55, said at a downtown espresso shop, where the front window features a Palin portrait over the boldface word "Hype."
"It makes me wonder whether I knew her."
Palin introduced herself to a nation as a conventional homemaker eager to shatter convention — the hockey mom roughing up the power brokers, a reformer with a bipartisan streak. But that maverick image — along with her poll numbers — has been scuffed, if not reshaped.
The designer eyeglasses are the same, but it's clear many voters outside the Republican base are looking at her through a changed lens. A woman who ascended to power in Alaska by challenging the Republican establishment now represents it on the national ticket. In her coming-out convention speech, Palin said, "I took on the old politics as usual," but in two months on the national political stage she has encountered questions about expenses and trips charged to taxpayers, as well as her account of actions she took as governor.
Duke University political scientist David Rohde says Palin has alienated independents at the very time the Republican ticket needs to attract votes from the political center.
"They first saw her as refreshing," Rohde said, referring to unaffiliated voters, a crucial swing group. Now, "more see her as a typical politician."
Among the revelations, Palin charged the state more than $21,000 for her daughters' commercial flights, including events where they weren't invited, and later ordered their expense forms amended to specify official state business. She billed the state for expenses, usually collected for travel, while she was at home, and her administration used private e-mail accounts to conduct state business.
Her scalding attacks on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama filled a traditional vice presidential nominee's role, but they also eroded her bipartisan credentials. In Alaska, her administration, once known for openness, developed a reputation for insularity. A legislative probe found she abused her power as governor.
She claimed she told Congress to cancel the "bridge to nowhere," but it turned out that she had supported it until it became an embarrassment. Disclosures that the Republican Party spent $150,000 for designer clothes, hairstyling and accessories and $36,000 to have celebrity makeup artist Amy Strozzi travel with her undermined Palin's homespun image and her professed preference for thrift shops.
And questions about her qualifications, ratcheted up by her often cringe-worthy answers during television interviews, haunted her candidacy.
Vice presidential candidates rarely affect the presidential vote, but recent polling suggests Palin could be a drag on John McCain's chances.
She attracts raucous, standing-room only crowds on the stump, but national polls in recent days indicate her popularity is shaky.
AP-Yahoo News polling found Palin's unfavorable rating jumped as voters learned more about her. In a survey conducted soon after McCain picked her, 42 percent of likely voters rated her favorably, 25 percent unfavorably and 33 percent didn't know enough to say. In a survey completed this week, the poll showed 43 percent of likely voters viewed her favorably and an equal 43 percent unfavorably, with 13 percent not knowing enough to say.
Independent likely voters started out a bit more sour and have grown increasingly negative — 35 percent gave her an unfavorable rating in early September, 47 percent in late October.
In a New York Times-CBS News poll completed this week, 59 percent of registered voters said Palin was not prepared to be vice president, up nine percentage points since the beginning of October. Almost a third of those polled said the vice-presidential selection would be a major influence on their vote for president, and those voters broadly favored Obama.
Some unflattering impressions of Palin might be the fault of McCain's own campaign. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, on Thursday criticized the way the governor was introduced to voters. In her first weeks on the national stage, she became viewed as "just an empty suit" because she spent too much time repeating the same speech, Ensign told the Las Vegas television news program NewsONE.
Pollster Ivan Moore, who tracks Alaska politics, said Palin will remain popular among Republicans, but Democrats and independents "don't like the pitbull-with-lipstick persona at all."
In Alaska "she really governed in a fairly populist way, which led to her high approval ratings," Moore said. As a vice-presidential candidate "she completely ruined the kind of bipartisanship she built up."
Her Alaska supporters blame the media for biased coverage or dismiss questions about expenses or trips as distractions.
Sharon Balsky, 70, an Anchorage retiree, has no problems with Palin's maverick credentials. The national media "doesn't go after Obama and (Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe) Biden the way they go after Palin," she said.
Palin appears to be asserting some independence from the McCain campaign. She spoke out against the campaign's decision to abandon Michigan and lamented its use of robocalls; she has defied her handlers in order to engage reporters more frequently. These moves generated reports some McCain operatives believe she is trying to position herself for a future campaign.
"She is a maverick. She took on the establishment up here," said Carol Milkman, 52, a hospital worker from Eagle River who volunteered to help Palin's campaign for governor. "I think she would make a good candidate for president."