John McCain needs to persuade swing voters that he's willing to take on the Republican establishment. He needs to persuade conservatives that he isn't squishy about social issues. And he needs to close the gender gap. When you think about it, the real surprise about Sarah Palin's selection as his running mate is that it's such a surprise.
Palin may be an obscure 44-year-old first-term governor and mother of five from tiny Wasilla, Alaska, but in many ways she reinforces John McCain's narrative of a maverick conservative crusader. She's risen to power by battling corruption in her own state's Republican establishment, exposing misconduct by the state GOP chairman and challenging the incumbent GOP governor. She's a committed Christian who's pro-life in practice as well as in theory; she recently gave birth to a son that she knew would have Down Syndrome.
But Palin can help McCain through biography as well as resume. She'll be the first woman on a Republican ticket, which the campaign is surely hoping will appeal to Hillary Clinton voters and help reduce Barack Obama's advantage among women. She's a fresh face to counteract Obama's message of change, and she's about as far outside the Beltway as you can get. A child of the middle class with a friendly face and big hair, she is so affable that she once won Miss Congeniality in a beauty pageant. Her son is about to deploy to Iraq. She's an ice fisherman, a moose hunter, a small business owner and a lifetime NRA member. And she shelved her state's pork-laden Bridge to Nowhere that McCain has ridiculed on the trail.
One more point in her favor: In the topsy-turvy election of 2008, the Last Frontier is actually a battleground state and Palin is Alaska's most popular politician.
There are certainly risks to the choice. Palin's presence will make it awkward for McCain to harp on Obama's inexperience, much less play that attack-dog role herself. She's only served as governor one month longer than Obama's been running for president, and she's argued that her youth helped her clean out corruption in Juneau, echoing an Obama talking point. "The age issue, I think, was more significant in my career than the gender issue; your resume isn't as fat as your opponent's, that kind of thing," Palin told TIME last month. "I don't have 30 years of political experience under my belt but that's a good thing. I've never been part of a good-ol'-boys club."
A journalism major from the University of Idaho, Palin started her political career in 1992 as a Wasilla city councilor. She was elected to the first of her two terms as mayor in 1996, and earned a reputation as "Sarah Barracuda" -- also her nickname as a feisty point guard on her high school basketball team -- for taking on entrenched bureaucrats. After running a strong race for lieutenant governor as an unknown in 2002, she made her mark on Alaska politics as a commissioner of a state oil and gas commission, when she tried to expose GOP officials with improper ties to the industry, and eventually resigned in 2004 after her complaints were ignored.
Palin challenged Governor Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary, and crushed the incumbent on a platform of change and reform. She then defeated the formidable former governor Tony Knowles in the general. But it's a long leap from Juneau to the White House. It's not clear what Palin thinks about foreign policy or many other national issues, though she has criticized the lack of a long-term plan for Iraq. And the top consideration for any candidate for the number-two job is readiness for the number-one job, an issue that may weigh more on voters' minds when the potential number one has just turned 72 years old.
Meanwhile, Palin's strong support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will contrast with McCain's muted opposition; she's said she expects McCain to change his mind on the issue, which will create an awkward dynamic no matter what he does. She also surprised Alaska's conservatives by vetoing a bill that would have denied state benefits to same-sex couples (though that might help her appeal to less socially conservative independents). Her profile as a good government crusader may not be such an easy sell, either. She was endorsed in an ad by Senator Ted Stevens, who is now under indictment in a Republican corruption scandal. And she's already embroiled in a mini-scandal that's under investigation by the state senate; Palin's former public safety director has claimed he was fired because he refused to fire a state trooper who was involved in a custody dispute with her sister.
Still, Palin boasts an 80% approval rating. She lived the first three months of her life in Idaho, but Alaskans clearly see this self-described "hockey mom" as one of them, a former Miss Wasilla who worked as a TV sports announcer and helping to run a commercial fishing business before entering politics. Her husband, Todd Palin, is part native Eskimo who works in the oil fields in addition to his fishing business, and is also a champion snowmobiler known in Alaska as the First Dude. In a state where Big Oil is king, Palin has been a staunch drilling supporter while maintaining her independence from the industry. And she impressed a lot of conservative Christians when she carried her son Trig to term despite his genetic tests indicating Down Syndrome. "I'm looking at him right now, and I see perfection," she said after returning to work.
Politically, in a year where the Republican brand is so tarnished, Palin will help McCain make the case that he's a different kind of Republican. It might be his best shot to be America's First Dude.