McCain's Play for Female Voters

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Stephan Savoia / AP

John McCain accomplished a rare feat for a Republican candidate Friday, packing a 12,000-seat basketball stadium with cheering supporters dancing to rock music and waving glow sticks. And in selecting Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, he chose someone who energized the dissolute Republican Party's activist base, and has already helped convince former foes like Focus on The Family's James Dobson to vote for McCain. But perhaps most importantly, McCain's bold move transformed the campaign of a 72-year-old white man into a potential cause-celeb for independent women, who will play a crucial role in determining the next occupant of the White House.

"It surely shakes up the analysis," said former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, a McCain supporter. "All of a sudden it's the Democrats who rejected a woman for the ticket and the Republicans who added a woman to the ticket. So all of a sudden it's back to the drawing board."

The entire roll out was targeted to women voters, who currently show less support nationwide for McCain than George W. Bush earned in 2004, according to the Gallup Poll. "This trust has been given to me 88 years almost to the day after the women of America first gained the right to vote," Palin said Friday, earning some of the loudest applause of the announcement rally. "It turns out the women of America aren't finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all."

In his introduction of Palin, McCain was quick to highlight Palin's gender, calling her "a devoted wife and mother of five." Palin's husband and five children, the latest of whom was born just months ago, followed her out onto the podium. Moments after the rally had ended, Palin offered her first interview to People magazine [which shares the same parent company, TIME Inc., as Time], which boasts an overwhelmingly female readership. "What I've had to do, though, is in the middle of the night, put down the Blackberries and pick up the breast pump--do a couple of things different and still get it all done," she told the magazine.

Both Democrats and Republicans openly acknowledge the importance of woman swing voters this cycle. At the Democratic convention in Denver, women were featured prominently and consistently on the stage, culminating in Hillary Clinton's speech Tuesday night, when she thanked her "sisterhood of the traveling pant suits."

Recent polls have shown that McCain is underperforming among the same crucial female demographic. A June poll by the Pew Research Center found that just 37% of women voters supported McCain, compared with the 46% and 41% support that President Bush enjoyed at the same points in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

But McCain clearly has designs on the same inspirational message of woman breaking through the glass ceiling that limits the professional opportunities for women. McCain's own relationship with Palin is limited, which only fueled accusations on the left that the choice was little more than a token move. He first met her in February of this year, at a National Governor's Association meeting. McCain's campaign says the two leaders had a phone conversation last Sunday, and then met again in secret on Thursday at McCain's family home in Sedona, Ariz., when the candidate offered her the job. Palin's children were not told that their mother was the nominee until later in the day Thursday. They had been told previously that they were going to Ohio to celebrate their parents' 20th wedding anniversary.

"I had promised Todd a little surprise for the anniversary present and hopefully he knows that I did deliver," Palin joked about her husband, after she came onto the stage Friday.

The women voters McCain hopes to attract with the Palin nomination are not likely to be core Clinton supporters, who tend to be politically liberal and pro-choice — different from the largely conservative and strictly pro-life policies embraced by Palin. But McCain advisers have identified a significant number of more moderate, independent women voters who have not yet committed to Obama.

Republican women like Misty Penrod, a registered nurse and single mother from Kettering, Ohio, may also be convinced to get more actively involved in the McCain campaign because of the pick. "I'm very excited by it," said Penrod, who has two young children and traveled to the rally Friday. "She knows daycare issues. She has a disabled child. She knows healthcare issues. She's a very good choice."

Such sentiments, if they expand by word of mouth across a crucial swing state like Ohio, are music to the ears of McCain's advisers. By picking Palin, McCain took a chance with a politician who lacks much experience on a national or international stage. But it's a bet that could pay off big on November 4.