When Sarah Palin was introduced five weeks ago as John McCain’s running mate, her impact seemed seismic. With her injection of youth and energy to the Republican ticket, McCain’s advisors predicted she would be a strong draw to women -- particularly independents and supporters of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton who were reluctant to back Barack Obama.
That seemed plausible as the Alaska governor attracted large crowds to rallies and was credited with a surge in the polls for McCain.
But as she faces her biggest test, tonight’s debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, Palin’s star power appears to have faded. She dropped out of the headlines as the financial crisis captured attention, and her shaky performance in interviews with CBS anchor Katie Couric was widely seen as a potential problem for the McCain campaign.
Palin is still enormously popular among Republicans and continues to stoke enthusiasm in the party’s base, but as voters learn about her, many have started to view her unfavorably. After the GOP convention, more than half of the voters surveyed by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said she was qualified to be president. In a Pew poll released Wednesday, just 37% said she would be ready to take over for McCain.
And polls now show little evidence to support the McCain campaign’s hope that she will attract female swing voters in significant numbers.
A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll last month found that Palin held no particular sway with women. Among independent voters, she was more popular with men: 44% said they were more likely to vote for McCain because of Palin, whereas just 31% of women said so. The poll also found just a quarter of Clinton’s former supporters were more inclined to choose the Arizona senator because of his running mate.
Irene Holcomb, a retiree from Duluth, Minn., is an independent voter who favored Clinton but now backs Obama. Initially, she said, she saw Palin as “the perfect woman,” but she has watched her interviews and now says she “comes off like she really doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Like Holcomb, a number of female Clinton supporters surveyed said they were concerned about Palin’s qualifications. Nearly all singled out her lack of foreign policy experience.
Kelly Knuth, a 48-year-old Democrat and Clinton supporter from Proctor, W.Va., was just the kind of undecided voter the McCain campaign hoped to win with Palin’s selection.
Palin seemed refreshingly “common” and “down-to-earth,” Knuth said -- a contrast to Obama and McCain, whom she views as removed from the economic struggles of working people. Yet her admiration for Palin wasn’t enough to tip her toward McCain.
“If she had some experience, yes, I think she could do something,” Knuth said.
For Karen Molesworth, an independent voter, her concern about whether Palin would be able to handle the Iraq war is personal -- her grandson has served four tours in Iraq.
“She talks about Russia, but come on, they said she just got a passport,” said 67-year-old Molesworth, who is from Port Huron, Mich., and supports Obama. “If Palin had to step in -- oh, God, she’d better have some good people behind her.”
Such negative impressions of Palin are on the upswing after her unsteady interviews and unflattering news reports about her record, including her decision not to cooperate with the investigation into her firing of Alaska’s public safety commissioner.
In polling by Pew between Saturday and Monday, 4 in 10 voters said they viewed her unfavorably, compared with 32% in a poll taken two weeks earlier.
Despite the potential limits of her appeal, Palin has exhibited a rare ability to establish an emotional connection with Republican women who flock to her rallies. In interviews with more than 20, few mentioned specific issues or shared ideology to explain their support -- more often they described Palin as “real,” “gutsy” and “tenacious.”
Rutgers University political science professor Ross K. Baker noted that Palin “could be anybody’s neighbor.”
“What flows from that is the belief that she may be uniquely able to understand the problems of ordinary Americans,” he said.
Her Everyman style has drawn comparisons to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and 70% of voters surveyed in the latest Pew poll said Palin was “down-to-earth.” In an interview Tuesday with talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Palin described herself as “a normal Joe Six-Pack American.”
At a recent rally in Virginia, Pam Arledge, a 45-year-old mother of five, noted that she and Palin were both PTA moms and “look just alike.”
“She gets up, takes care of the kids and goes to work. I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God! It’s like me doing it.’ It’s like I’m living through her. She is going inspire an entire generation of women,” said Arledge, who lives in Spotsylvania, Va.
Arledge shrugged off their ideological differences, on abortion, for example: “I’m a centrist, so I don’t care what her social views are.”
Ronda Bryce, a 46-year-old preschool administrator from Haymarket, Va., said the Alaska governor “seems like somebody you could shop with and have intelligent conversation with. It wouldn’t always be about the shoes, but the shoes would be good,” she said with a laugh.
To Debbie Keller, a 51-year-old homemaker from Littlestown, Pa., who attended a McCain-Palin rally in Lancaster, Pa., the debate over Palin’s credentials seemed ridiculous, since Palin is already juggling a governorship and a campaign with her duties as a mother of five children, including a baby with Down syndrome and a pregnant teenage daughter.
“I have six kids, so I think she has a lot of experience to do it,” she said. “If you can deal with the problems in your family and your own children, you’re not going to get overwhelmed.”