The country, most of it anyway, got its first glimpse Friday of Sarah Heath Palin, John McCain’s selection as his running mate, and the reaction was nearly universal:
Palin is breathtakingly unlike any other vice presidential pick in American history -- a gun-toting, mooseburger-eating former Miss Wasilla, an Alaska governor whose parents nearly missed her national unveiling because they were out hunting caribou.
The first woman to grace a Republican ticket stepped onto the stage with McCain in Dayton, Ohio, surrounded by her husband and four of their five children, including a baby born in April. The tableau of everyday mom-ness, however, may have masked the ambition and grit that have marked Palin’s meteoric rise in Alaska.
Two years ago, she knocked off the sitting Republican governor in the primary and a former Democratic governor in the general. Her relations with Alaska officialdom have not always been sunny, resuscitating a nickname given when, as a high schooler, she led her basketball team to the state championship: “Sarah Barracuda.”
By her own telling, Palin’s political rise has been improbable.
Born in Idaho, she moved as a baby to Alaska with her science teacher father and school secretary mother, part-time trappers who seemed to personify the quirky Alaska spirit. (Her father, Chuck, to a Vogue magazine reporter recently angling for an interview: “Come on over, unless you have a problem with small dead animals.” The magazine reported that a thousand caribou antlers were piled near the driveway of their home.)
Palin was baptized as a Catholic but later began attending the Wasilla Assembly of God church. At age 12 she, her mother and sisters were re-baptized in nearby Beaver Lake. The former pastor of her new church would give the invocation at her inauguration.
As a child, sports gave a structure to her ambition, she told the Anchorage Daily News shortly before her election as governor.
“I know this sounds hokey, but basketball was a life-changing experience for me,” she said. “It’s all about setting a goal, about discipline, teamwork and then success.”
Palin led her school basketball team to the state championship in 1982 and was a runner-up in the Miss Alaska contest two years later. (She reported with some consternation that the judges were too interested in the contestants’ derrieres.) In 1988, she and her high school boyfriend, Todd Palin, eloped and began raising a family.
Throughout, her pursuits appeared to be typically Alaskan: She spent a summer working at the Alyeska Seafoods processing plant in Dutch Harbor, America’s largest seafood port.
“She used to work for me,” said Frank Kelty, who at the time was the plant manager. “She took butchered crab portions and arranged them in a basket for cooking.”
She enjoyed hunting, she told Vogue, and felt no qualms about shooting caribou.
“That caribou has had a good life. It’s been free out there on the tundra, not caged up on a farm with no place to go,” she said.
While her husband fished and worked in the oil fields, she moved quickly from the PTA to the Wasilla City Council, in 1992. Four years later, she bumped off a three-term incumbent to become mayor of the town, near Anchorage.
During her tenure, the flashes of the future governor arose: not terribly communicative, running a little roughshod.
“Some of the things I’m doing, it’s obvious I’m not running for Miss Congeniality,” she said, citing a title she had won in the Miss Alaska contest. “I’m running the city.”
It was not until her term-limited departure from that job that she burnished her reformist credentials, much cited by the McCain campaign Friday.
After being appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she filed an ethics complaint against a fellow panelist, who happened to be the state Republican Party chairman. That presaged her 2006 gubernatorial race, when she defeated Republican incumbent Frank Murkowski and another candidate in the primary, and former Democratic governor Tony Knowles in November.
As governor, she has struck populist positions. She laid off the chef in the governor’s mansion -- no need for that, she said -- and often drives herself around town.
“She’s got perfect political pitch,” said Jake Metcalf, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “She’s just been able to get in with issues and get press on it, and she knows sort of what the public wants to hear and has been able to place her positions around those sort of issues that are important to people here, the values that are important to people here.
“I don’t think you can underestimate her as a politician,” he said.
Two years after taking office, Palin remains enormously popular, in large part because many of the state’s other politicians have been embroiled in ethics scandals.
“The people of Alaska, many of them got tired of the ego issues out there with longer-term federal and state officials and said enough is enough,” said John Harris, the Republican speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives.
But he added that Palin has proved to be, as she was in Wasilla, “not a great communicator.” She has alienated enough Republicans that “without a very large contingent of Democrats supporting her positions, she can’t get anything accomplished,” Harris said.
Palin is also embroiled in an ongoing investigation over the firing of the state public safety commissioner, who said he was pressured by Palin’s husband and her staff to fire Palin’s former brother-in-law. The former brother-in-law, a state trooper, has been involved in a messy divorce and child custody dispute with the governor’s sister.
McCain campaign surrogates were spreading the word Friday that Palin would appeal to women because of her ability to juggle five children and her political career.
Her bookends, the oldest and the youngest, have made this a bittersweet season for Palin.
Her oldest, Track, joined the Army last Sept. 11 and will depart for Iraq shortly. Her youngest, Trig, was born this spring with Down syndrome, a condition his parents were aware of before his birth.
“Many people will express sympathy, but you don’t want or need that, because Trig will be a joy. You have to trust me on this,” the Anchorage Daily News said she wrote in an e-mail to relatives and friends, in the voice of “Trig’s Creator, your Heavenly Father.”
Palin’s evangelical faith shapes her social views; she opposes abortion and believes creationism should be taught in public schools.
The vice presidential selection came as a surprise not only to the political establishment but to Palin’s family. A CBS News producer said Chuck and Sally Heath were called Friday morning by Palin’s husband and told to “listen to the radio.”
This spring, when the governor’s name surfaced as a potential running mate, Palin told the Anchorage paper that her advantage was that she happened to “fit a demographic” in the Republican Party.
“That’s the reality,” she said. “It’s gender, it’s age, it’s kind of the maverick being from the outside.”
On Friday she was as far on the inside as she could get.
Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak, Kim Murphy and Maura Reynolds contributed to this article.
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A timeline of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s life and career
1964: Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, to Sally Heath, a secretary, and Charles Heath, a teacher. A few months later, the family moves to Alaska.
1982: Graduates from Wasilla High School in Wasilla, Alaska. A star point guard, she earns the nickname “Sarah Barracuda” and leads the Wasilla girls’ basketball team to the state championship.
1984: Wins the Miss Wasilla beauty contest (where she is also named Miss Congeniality). Later that year she is a runner-up in the Miss Alaska competition.
1987: Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in journalism (with a minor in political science) from the University of Idaho.
1988: Marries Todd Palin, her high school sweetheart. They go on to have five children, Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig.
1992: Is elected to the Wasilla City Council, where she serves two terms.
1996: Elected mayor of Wasilla; serves two terms.
2002: Loses her first statewide campaign, for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, coming in second in a five-way race. Named chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski.
2003: Resigns from the commission in protest over what she calls the “lack of ethics” of fellow Alaskan Republican leaders, including Randy Ruedrich, the head of Alaska’s Republican Party.
2006: Elected governor, after defeating Murkowski in the GOP primary, becoming the state’s youngest and first female chief executive.
2007: Successfully pressures lawmakers to pass the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act to build a pipeline to deliver to market natural gas from the North Slope, which has 35 trillion cubic feet of proven reserves.
Aug. 29, 2008: Chosen as Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential running mate.
Sources: Associated Press and Times reporting