How Sarah Palin Mastered Politics

The frontier mom and former beauty queen shrewdly fought her way upstream in Alaska's rough political waters

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

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In her first big race, for Mayor of Wasilla, Palin was a polarizing figure who introduced issues like abortion and gun control into a mayoral race that had traditionally been contested like a friendly intramural contest. John Stein, the mayor at the time, had helped Palin get into politics a few years earlier. He had no idea that he was about to become the first casualty of her ambitions. He doesn't begrudge her running against him--he had been in office for nine years--but he says she changed the stakes when she sought outside endorsements and injected hot-button politics into a small-town race. "It was always a nonpartisan job," he says. "But with her, the state GOP came in and started affecting the race."

Palin often describes that 1996 race as having been a fight against the old boys' club. Stein's memory is different. "It got to the extent that--I don't remember who it was now--but some national antiabortion outfit sent little pink cards to voters in Wasilla endorsing her," he says. Chas St. George, a Palin friend who worked on Stein's campaign, says he has no reason to dispute Stein's recollection of events but doesn't remember Palin's conduct as beyond the pale. "Our tax coffers were starting to grow," he says. "John was for expanding services, and Sarah wasn't. That's what the race was about."

One thing all sides agree on is that the valley was in flux. The old libertarian pioneer ethos was giving way to a rising Christian conservatism. By shrewdly invoking issues that mattered to the ascendant majority, she won the mayor's race. While she may have been a new face, says Victoria Naegele, who edited the local Frontiersman newspaper then, Palin also knew how to get the party establishment on her side. "The state party gave her the mechanism to get into that office," says Naegele. "As soon as she was confident enough to brush them off, she did. But she wasn't an outsider to start with. She very much had to kowtow to them."

Being mayor was, in the beginning, as contentious as campaigning for the job. Palin ended up dismissing almost all the city department heads who had been loyal to Stein, including a few who had been instrumental in getting her into politics to begin with. Irl Stambaugh, the police chief, filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination, alleging that Palin fired him in part at the behest of the National Rifle Association because he had opposed a concealed-gun law that the NRA supported. He lost the suit. The animosity spawned some talk of a recall attempt, but eventually Palin's opponents in the city council opted for a more conciliatory route.

Palin saw a larger future and presided over Wasilla's rapid expansion. Churches proliferated as well. "We like to call this the Bible Belt of Alaska," says Cheryl Metiva, executive director of the local chamber of commerce. Stein says that as mayor, Palin was as much about promoting conservative values as about promoting growth. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Emmons, couldn't be reached for comment. St. George, however, points out that Palin couldn't have seen everything through a religious lens; like all smart pols, she knows how to appeal to a broad constituency. She did, after all, resist calls to restrict operating hours for the bars in town.

To the Statehouse

When Palin, who went on to win re-election by a landslide, left office in 2002 because of term limits, her husband's stepmother Faye Palin, who was pro-choice and registered as unaffiliated, ran for mayor. She did not, however, get Sarah's endorsement. Several longtime politicians in the valley say they think abortion was the reason Sarah didn't supporting Faye. A former city-council member recalls that Faye's was a heated race too, mainly because of right-to-life issues: "People were writing BABY KILLER on Faye's campaign signs just a few days before the election." Faye lost the race to the candidate Sarah had backed, Dianne Keller, who is still mayor of Wasilla. (Faye told the New York Daily News that she liked listening to Barack Obama speak and wasn't sure who would get her vote in November.)

Palin ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 and lost. After that, Republican governor Frank Murkowski gave her a plum assignment on the state energy commission. She made what is perhaps the defining move of her career when she quit in protest over Republican corruption on the board. It was, most people agree, an authentic gesture. But it was also great political theater because by then, the hottest issue in Alaska wasn't gay marriage or even abortion. It was corruption and cronyism. In ethics reform, she had found the new political identity she needed to make it to the next level.

Andrew Halcro, a noted Palin critic who ran against her as an independent in the 2006 gubernatorial race, says she knew instinctively the issues were changing. Halcro recalls a debate in October 2006 in which she withstood repeated questioning about her opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Exasperated, Palin asked the moderator if all the same questions would be asked of her opponents. Abortion was detracting from her new message: cleaning up the capital.

Palin's wasn't always a straight path to reformer in chief. McCain lauds her opposition to pork, but she hired a lobbying firm to lure millions in federal funding to Wasilla while she was mayor, and she served as a major fund raiser for Ted Stevens, the patron saint of the "bridge to nowhere" (which she supported before she didn't support it). Still, Palin has sloughed off the old days and completed a difficult task: restoring a modicum of trust in Juneau. Her approval ratings register in the 80s. Promising in her Inaugural Address to protect the state like a "nanook defending her cub," she has continued to play down social issues as governor. When a parental-consent law was struck down by Alaska's highest court in 2007, Palin called the decision "outrageous" but refused demands from conservatives to introduce antiabortion legislation in a session that was supposed to be about a natural gas pipeline. "In all the years I've known Sarah and her parents, we never talked about right to life or any of that," says St. George. "She doesn't let those issues get in the way of getting things done for the community." Her political journey from banner-waving GOP social conservative to maverick reformer may be good timing, but that happens to be a talent all successful politicians possess. It's what former journalist Bill McAllister, who now works for Palin's press staff, used to call "Sarah-dipity"--that uncanny gift of knowing exactly what voters are looking for at a particular moment.

Small Town, Big Trouble

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