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GOP wasn’t expecting this challenge

Times Staff Writer

Republicans swung into damage control Monday as their scaled-back convention was overtaken by news that the unmarried teenage daughter of vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin was five months pregnant.

The revelation introduced a highly personal and unpredictable element into a presidential campaign already steeped in gender politics.

In a statement released hours before the convention opened, Palin and her husband, Todd, did not say when their daughter Bristol, 17, told them of her pregnancy. Bristol intends to marry the father, the statement said -- a move that drew widespread praise from religious leaders and convention delegates.

John McCain, campaigning in Ohio and Pennsylvania, did not take questions from reporters. But aides said the Arizona senator was aware of the Palin family’s situation when he stunned observers Friday by choosing Alaska’s governor as his running mate. His aides also warned that the media would face a backlash if it pried too deeply into the Palins’ lives.

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“It’s a private family matter. Life happens in families,” said Steve Schmidt, chief strategist of the McCain campaign. “If people try to politicize this, the American people will be appalled by it.”

The political effect of Palin’s announcement will depend on how voters process the news. Speaking to reporters in Michigan, Democratic nominee Barack Obama -- whose mother was 18 when he was born -- reiterated statements that candidates’ families should be kept off-limits.

But the gossip dominated the day’s talk after it flashed through this convention city, starting on BlackBerrys and then spreading rapidly on cable television and the Internet.

Gender has been a dominant theme of this campaign, which featured Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historic White House bid and the drama over supporters struggling to accept her defeat. McCain’s selection of Palin was seen as an attempt to win over female voters who remain hostile to, or at the least ambivalent about, Obama. But opinions are still forming about the little-known Palin, 44, and the news Monday added another layer of uncertainty.

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“The choice of Palin is either brilliant or a colossal screw-up on the part of John McCain,” said independent political analyst Charles Cook. “Are people going to say, ‘Gee, she’s a regular person coping with problems just like us?’ Or are people going to say, ‘How can she possibly run for vice president with everything going on her life?’ ”

Citing a legislative investigation into Palin’s firing of the state public safety commissioner -- a matter allegedly linked to a family dispute -- Cook suggested: “She can’t take on a whole lot more water.” On Monday, it was disclosed that the state had hired a private attorney to represent Palin in the legislative probe and also that her husband had been arrested for drunken driving more than two decades ago.

With scores of reporters descending on Alaska to comb through Palin’s background, McCain aides said the campaign had dispatched a team of lawyers and other campaign operatives to the state. The aides denied that McCain was vetting Palin again.

The latest development raises questions about the thoroughness of the process leading up to Palin’s selection. A GOP source with close ties to the campaign said that McCain aides “vetted her through Google and clipping services.”

“They didn’t send lawyers there or talk to people who knew her there,” said the source, who did not want to be identified discussing the campaign’s inside moves.

But Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella said more than two dozen McCain aides reviewed public records and legal documents, her credit history, news accounts, speeches, financial records and any formal complaints against her. Palin completed a 40-page questionnaire and was interviewed for three to four hours by Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., a longtime Washington attorney, and spoke at length with McCain’s top advisors.

In the interview with Culvahouse, Palin disclosed her daughter’s pregnancy and her husband’s DUI, Comella said.

Schmidt told reporters that the campaign issued the statement on Bristol’s pregnancy to rebut Internet rumors that the governor’s 4-month-old baby, Trig, is in fact Bristol’s child.

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The father of Bristol’s baby was identified in the statement as Levi, but the campaign said it was not disclosing his full name or age or how he and Bristol know each other.

“We had hoped this could be an issue that was private -- that the family could deal with this issue privately,” Schmidt told reporters who swarmed him at the convention soon after the statement was issued. “It used to be that a lot of those smears and the crap on the Internet stayed out of the newsrooms of serious journalists. That’s not the case anymore.”

Although the campaign declined to release the father’s full name, residents of the Palins’ hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, seemed familiar with the couple. They identified the father as a fellow high school senior and a prominent player on the school hockey team.

Few expressed surprise that they were planning marriage at their age. “I think she’s pretty responsible by keeping the baby,” said Weston Patrick, 17, whose mother, Judy Patrick, was Palin’s deputy mayor in Wasilla.

Bristol has split her high school years since Palin’s election between Wasilla, Juneau and Anchorage, friends of the family said.

Levi occasionally made the papers with his hockey exploits. In February, he played the final game for Wasilla High School at the state tournament with a cracked tibia, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win.

Both Bristol and Levi appear in the 2006 Wasilla High yearbook. Levi is pictured with curly brown hair and a smile, and Bristol wears braces. His photo this year shows him in his red hockey uniform.

Leaders of the Christian right and convention delegates were quick to rally behind the GOP ticket. James Dobson, head of the conservative group Focus on the Family and a past critic of McCain, said Palin and her husband should “be commended once again for not just talking about their pro-life and pro-family values, but living them out even in the midst of trying circumstances.”

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Privately, however, some Republican insiders said that the next few days could be crucial to the futures of McCain and Palin. “If instead of looking like a hockey mom, she looks like a person from a weird family, this could sink her,” said one GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

News of the pregnancy was yet another distraction for McCain, whose convention has been overshadowed by Hurricane Gustav, which plowed through Louisiana on Monday. The four-day gathering had been intended as a coming-out party for Palin, who is to deliver her acceptance speech Wednesday night. She has yet to make the usual round of social calls to meet delegates and party leaders.

Bristol Palin appeared in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday holding her baby brother when McCain announced that he had chosen Sarah Palin as his running mate. An image of Bristol from that event was broadcast throughout the day on TV.

Despite Palin’s staunch record of opposing abortion, she had kept a relatively low profile on the issue, rebuffing calls from fellow Republicans to require parental consent for teenage abortions and to ban late-term procedures.

When Palin was running for governor in 2006, she said on a questionnaire for the conservative group Eagle Forum Alaska that she would support funding for abstinence-only education instead of explicit sex education programs, school-based clinics and distribution of condoms.

The pregnancy would be an unwelcome diversion for any candidate, but McCain has seemed particularly uncomfortable dealing with birth control issues. In 2007, the candidate stumbled when a reporter in Iowa asked his position on funding condoms to fight AIDS. He called on a member of his staff to “find out what my position is on contraception.”

In July, McCain stammered when asked about an advisor’s statement wondering why insurance plans cover Viagra but not women’s contraception. The candidate paused and looked perturbed before saying he couldn’t recall his position. When pressed, he replied: “I don’t usually duck an issue, but I’ll try to get back to you.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, Bob Drogin, James Hohmann, Doyle McManus, Marjorie Miller, Kim Murphy, James Rainey and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.


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