Behind Obama's Palin Strategy

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

Barack Obama speaks to the media in front of his bus after touring the Voith Siemens Hydro Power Plant in York, Pa., on Sept. 4, 2008

Nobody was more surprised by John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate than the people who run Barack Obama's campaign. "I can honestly say that we weren't prepared for that," says David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist. "I mean, her name wasn't on anybody's list. It was a surprise to a lot of Republicans as well."

Their shock was evident in their initial, clumsy reaction, a hard-hitting two-sentence statement from Obama spokesman Bill Burton that included this zinger: "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency." Eighty-six minutes later, the campaign corrected course, issuing a second statement from both Obama and his running mate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden: "While we obviously have differences over how best to lead this country forward, Governor Palin is an admirable person and will add a compelling new voice to this campaign."

Later that afternoon, Obama, almost apologetically, explained the discrepancy: "You know campaigns start getting these hair triggers, and the statement that Joe and I put out reflects our sentiments." The do-si-do by the campaign reflects its initial uncertainty on how to deal with Palin, a rare moment of unsure footing for the usually flawlessly managed 19-month-old operation.

The dilemma the campaign has about the sudden emergence of this political superstar comes down to this: it can't possibly ignore her, but going after her directly could easily backfire. If anything, the past week has shown that Palin wears a similar coat of Teflon as Obama. Just as many of Obama's opponents suddenly found themselves accused of playing the race card, many of Palin's supporters have been quick to accuse Dems of outrageous sexism in the frontal assault on Palin's record and family. And responding to each one of her volleys only gives her more prominence in the race than the Obama team would prefer. "I suspect the Obama campaign will let that process unfold without directly engaging Palin," says Thomas Mann, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution.

Still, given her attacks on Obama Wednesday night, his campaign will have a hard time resisting the urge to respond head-on. Many observers had assumed that the choice of Palin would effectively take the McCain campaign's experience argument off the table. But the Republicans have shown no such reluctance, continuing to claim that Palin's eight years as a small-town mayor and two years as Alaska Governor make her more qualified than Obama with his seven years in the Illinois Senate and three years in the U.S. Senate — and even Biden with his 35 years in the U.S. Senate.

The Obama folks, however, seem to have settled on a strategy of downplaying Palin's lack of experience in favor of attacking her bigger claim to fame — her reputation as a maverick, nonpartisan reformer. The campaign is working to link her to Washington and paint her with the same label they've given McCain — more of the same, a Bush third term. They're even talking up her political skills these days. "She couldn't have been more of a Washington politician than she was last night," Axelrod says. "She played the typical slash-and-burn role, and I think she did it incredibly skillfully; she's very deft at throwing the bombs."

In some ways, the Democrats are now experiencing what the GOP felt when trying to go after Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 — before the financial controversies that got her into trouble. "George H. W. Bush didn't do an especially good job in the one vice-presidential debate where he appeared condescending and patronizing at points toward Ferraro, which infuriated her and her supporters," says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "And Barbara Bush didn't help with the 'rhymes with witch' comment."

The Obama campaign has a lot less margin for error than Reagan did in 1984, and it knows that. So while it is quick to point out inaccuracies in Palin's record — her claim that she firmly opposed the so-called Bridge to Nowhere and other wasteful Washington earmarks — the campaign is primarily relying on the public and the media to press Palin. Answers may be a long time coming, though, if McCain adviser Nicolle Wallace is to be believed. She suggested on MSNBC Thursday that the media has been so unfair to Palin that it doesn't deserve a chance to interview her, and that all anyone will see of Palin will be her public speeches. The Obama campaign wasted little time in latching onto this: "I assume the American people are going to demand that she account for her own record and for John McCain's agenda," says David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager.

One place Palin won't be able to hide is during her one vice-presidential debate with Biden, on Oct. 2. The conventional wisdom has been that Biden will have to tread very carefully in how he engages Palin, for fear that he will be accused of being condescending and bullying toward a female politician. That concern still exists, but Palin's tough tone in her speech may make it slightly easier for Biden to not pull any punches. Indeed, it promises to be as intriguing a confrontation as any of the presidential debates.

Palin can also be counted on to try to provoke Obama and Biden — she was at it Thursday at a meeting of GOP Governors — and she's already proven she can get under their skin. Asked about Palin at a town-hall event in York, Pa., Thursday, Obama didn't take the bait, saying "I'll let Governor Palin talk about her experience, and I'm going to talk about mine." But when reporters pressed him an hour later, the Democratic nominee couldn't resist a little dig: "I think she's got a compelling story, but I assume that she wants to be treated the same way that guys want to be treated," Obama said. "I've been through this for 19 months. She has been through it — what, four days so far?"

Ultimately, Obama has been relying mostly on surrogates to attack Palin directly, such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who called Palin a "Hail Mary" pick; Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who said Palin has "no substance, no vision of where this country should go"; and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who lit into Palin's hiring of lobbyists to secure earmarks. And perhaps the best surrogate of all is the woman who first cracked the glass ceiling this election cycle and launched a national debate on sexism and politics. Her name, of course, is Hillary Clinton, and she will be out stumping for Obama in Florida next week. (See photos of Barack Obama backstage before his convention speech here.)