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McCain's choice of Palin is a risk

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American voters on Friday began learning about Sarah Palin. But the selection of an obscure Alaska governor as the Republican vice presidential nominee also offers clues about the leadership style of the man who placed her on the ticket.

Though John McCain clearly concluded that Palin could attract female voters and grab his campaign some Barack Obama-style media buzz, he also is taking a risk that in elevating a largely unknown figure, he undermines the central theme of his candidacy that he puts "country first," above political calculations.

For a candidate known to possess a quick temper and an unpredictable political streak, the decision raises questions about how McCain would lead -- whether his decisions would flow from careful deliberations or gut checks in which short-term considerations or feelings outweigh the long view.

"Americans like risk-takers, but they also want to know that in times of crisis, you're going to be calm," said Matthew Dowd, who was a senior campaign strategist for President Bush but is neutral in the McCain-Obama race.

"Americans don't necessarily want somebody in a time of crisis to be overly emotional," Dowd said. "That's the balance that John McCain's going to have to show the public."

The Palin risk also has the potential to reap big rewards.

Her presence on the ticket as a strongly antiabortion mother of five -- her infant son has Down syndrome -- promises to energize evangelical voters who have been skeptical of McCain.

Already, some top conservative Christian leaders who criticized McCain in the past have proclaimed enthusiasm for the pick.

Moreover, as a hunter, a member of the National Rifle Assn. and an avid snowmobiler, Palin appeals to many facets of the GOP base.

McCain's choice of Palin strikes a contrast with Obama's running-mate selection of Joe Biden, a longtime U.S. senator whose foreign policy credentials and working-class roots seemed to fill important gaps in Obama's resume and political style.

That is not to say that voters always want the deliberative approach. McCain's popularity stems partly from his independent style, whereas Obama has been accused of being too professorial and failing to connect with middle-class voters on a personal level.

Still, for McCain, who turned 72 on Friday and has had bouts with the most serious form of skin cancer, the priority in his running-mate selection was picking someone voters could envision becoming commander in chief should something befall him as president.

Or so it had seemed.

As of midweek, according to GOP sources, Republicans believed that the Arizona senator had narrowed his choices to more-seasoned contenders: Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty, popular with conservatives, was viewed as the safe bet; Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, would have angered the party base but was generally considered qualified.

How McCain settled on Palin, whom he first met six months ago, remains a mystery outside his small inner circle of advisors.

She doesn't seem an ideal fit for a campaign that has focused intensely on foreign policy expertise and has attacked Obama for his relative lack of experience in that area.

At 44, she is three years younger than Obama and 21 years younger than Biden. She was elected governor in 2006 and formerly was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population 7,000 or so.

McCain apparently made his decision after a telephone conversation with Palin last weekend and a face-to-face meeting Thursday at his home in Sedona, Ariz.

"On its face, it looks like a gut decision," said a Republican strategist who requested anonymity when discussing McCain's judgment. "But it also speaks to a very hyper-political decision. Obviously, he doesn't have any history with Sarah Palin. He doesn't know her. It seems to be a calculated push toward gaining women voters."

Another Republican with close ties to the McCain campaign said Friday that the pick reflected McCain's penchant for going with his gut -- even if such gambles can lead him to the wrong choice. The Republican felt uncomfortable repeating talking points distributed by the McCain campaign, which argued that Palin's role as commander of the Alaska National Guard and her Army son's imminent deployment to Iraq makes her "ready to be president" and helps her "understand what it takes to lead our nation."

"This is a guy who takes big gambles," said the Republican, who requested anonymity when talking about McCain. "But we're talking about somebody who is 72 running for president, and I don't know if you gamble with those decisions, do you? It's not like he was 20 points behind."

The surprise pick underscored a go-it-alone style that often has alienated McCain's Senate colleagues -- and left them scratching their heads.

Many Republicans struggled Friday to praise McCain's choice, simply because they knew little about Palin. In one awkward exchange on CNN, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who had been mentioned as a dark-horse candidate, said she didn't know the Alaska governor.

Hutchison was one of several Republican women who had been mentioned as possible running mates for McCain, including former business executives Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina.

Democrats on Friday said McCain had passed over more qualified contenders, such as Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

Polls show that McCain could improve his standing among women.

Though he is winning 47% of the white female vote, there is room for him to exploit the disaffection of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton backers who have not warmed to Obama. And Palin could win McCain more support from working-class women.

But it is not clear that Palin would pull in voters who had been drawn to Clinton's advocacy for women's rights -- including abortion rights -- and her decades of experience.

Palin began her courtship of that constituency Friday, invoking the legacy of Geraldine Ferraro, who, as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984, became the first woman to run on a national major-party ticket. Palin also pledged to finish Clinton's work and "shatter that glass ceiling once and for all."

If she succeeds in drawing more female voters and gains acceptance as a potential commander in chief, Palin's selection will have paid off. But if her image wilts under the most intense scrutiny of her life, McCain's gut could prove to be his downfall.

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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