John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate will either turn out to be a brilliant way for the Republican to scramble the race in his favor or a disastrous pick that is cast as a desperate act.
On the face of it, McCain has failed the ultimate test that any presidential candidate must face in picking a running mate: selecting someone who is unambiguously qualified to be president.
Palin is a talented politician who has both support among conservatives and a compelling personal story. But her short resume in Alaska politics and her nonexistent national track record will make it impossible for McCain to argue with a straight face that she was the most qualified person he could have selected.
In the short term, the pick will create excitement among the kind of grass-roots conservatives who have never been enthusiastic about McCain, and in the media, which will be fascinated by Palin's good looks (matched by those of her dishy husband), intelligence and charm.
But Palin is now going to have to perform at a very high level to persuade the media and the public that she is truly ready to be a heartbeat away and a 72-year-old's heart at that from the presidency. How she handles questions about federal issues, national security and foreign affairs will be closely scrutinized, and her margin of error is next to zero.
Early mistakes, like the ones made by Dan Quayle in 1988, could be devastating not just to her, but also to McCain's chances. Those who point out that George H.W. Bush was able to win despite Dan Quayle's presence on the ticket forget that the country was much more solidly Republican at the presidential level back then than in today's 50-50 America.
In addition, Palin has already had at least one ethical flap as governor, and her personal, political and financial background will be intensely picked over by the Democrats and the national media.
Barack Obama's pick for his running mate, Joe Biden of Delaware, has already seen the kind of scrutiny a running mate gets, with stories about the financial dealings of his son and brother. The difference is that Biden has had decades in the national spotlight, which means that voters have more context in which to evaluate these stories and that Biden has much more experience in dealing with this kind of controversy. Palin will not only have to get up to speed on a range of issues, but handle the inevitable flaps that will come her way.
Perhaps all of these potential problems will be avoided because Palin, like Barack Obama, will turn out to be a young, once-in-a-generation political figure who can handle American politics at the highest level without the usual experience. That's what John McCain is counting on. He has always been something of a political gambler. Some of his closest advisers have looked at polling data for many months and reached the conclusion that the national environment is so grim for the Republican Party that McCain can only win the election with a series of bold moves. Palin is clearly intended to help with voters who want change, voters who think America is on the wrong track, and voters who have soured on President Bush.
But if McCain is wrong about how big a plus Palin will be, he might have just undone the gains of the last month, in which his campaign succeeded somewhat in defining Obama on Republican terms and closed the gap with the Democratic nominee in key state polls. He has taken a chance on Sarah Palin to shake up the race but at a time when many Republicans do not see why the race needs to be shaken up.