Prepping her for prime time

Times Staff Writers

Sarah Palin arrived at the site of the Republican National Convention on Sunday night and has hardly been seen since.

The Alaska governor has not visited her home-state delegation, nor did she make a much-anticipated appearance Tuesday before the friendliest of audiences, an antiabortion women's group that intended to give her an award in the form of a porcelain baby.

Officials from John McCain's campaign said Tuesday that they had formed a team to ready his new running mate for prime time -- literally -- as she prepares for a nationally televised speech tonight or Thursday and a rollout of her candidacy to be the first woman elected on a national ticket.

It is not unusual for a new vice presidential pick to be schooled in the nuances of domestic and foreign affairs, particularly when the nominee is plucked from state politics.

But for Palin and McCain's presidential campaign, this is an extraordinary moment -- as the little-known running mate introduces herself to a nation that has seen a mixed picture of who she is and remains unsure what to make of her.

Core conservatives are smitten with the 44-year-old governor, who opposes abortion in all cases, including rape and incest. And millions of dollars in donations have poured in.

But Republican strategists don't know how she will play among moderate swing voters, including blue-collar Democrats, who have been moving toward Barack Obama but might like Palin's middle-class roots.

"There's no middle ground on this for John McCain," said Dan Bartlett, a former counselor to President Bush. "She is either going to be a wild success or a spectacular failure."

Another party leader, former Florida Republican state Chairman Al Cardenas, said Tuesday that Palin had to "give America a sense of confidence that she's presidential, that she has a mastery of the issues that she'll be facing."

On Tuesday, after new details emerged raising questions about Palin's background and McCain's selection process, it became clear that the campaign had no intention of abandoning Palin's candidacy.

Instead, McCain aides are preparing an all-fronts defense of the vice presidential nominee -- and by extension of McCain's judgment in picking her.

Campaign officials accused Democrats of sexism for questioning Palin's qualifications, citing remarks by Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, belittling her management experience. And the campaign railed against the media for reporting on the revelation this week that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant, though Palin announced the pregnancy Monday and her daughter's teenage husband-to-be plans to attend the convention.

Moreover, with some GOP strategists worried that the Palin pick has undercut McCain's argument that Obama is too inexperienced to be president, internal campaign talking points obtained Tuesday by The Times signal that Republicans will try to retake the experience argument -- drawing a direct parallel between Palin and Democratic nominee Obama.

"Obama's 'experience' is running for president," read the talking points, distributed Tuesday to campaign surrogates who appear on radio and television talk shows. "Gov. Palin's experience is bringing people together to get things done."

Another document distributed to GOP delegates urges them to discuss Palin's knowledge of energy issues as governor of an oil-producing state -- and exhorts the delegates in their discussions of Palin: "STAY POSITIVE when talking to reporters."

The task of selling the country on Palin has grown more complicated in recent days.

In addition to her daughter's pregnancy, new details are raising questions about how much the Arizona senator's team researched Palin.

She recently retained a lawyer to represent her as investigators probe whether she improperly fired a state public safety official for failing to fire her former brother-in-law, a trooper. And despite her claim to be a champion against the "abuse" of budgetary earmarks, it turns out that as mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska, and as governor, she sought tens of millions of dollars in hometown projects. Also, although she brags about her opposition to the infamous "bridge to nowhere" that symbolizes McCain's hatred of pork-barrel spending, Palin supported the project until it grew too expensive.

Amid those reports, a Republican with close ties to the campaign has said that Palin's selection was a rushed decision and that she was vetted at the last minute.

McCain aides have said that Palin was fully vetted over many months. But in sending a team of lawyers and other staffers to Alaska this week, the campaign is creating the impression that there is more research to be done. And some party strategists say they fear another disclosure that could cripple the Palin candidacy.

Also, although Republicans at first predicted that Palin would draw many former backers of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and other female voters who are up for grabs in November, initial polling has not borne that out, perhaps indicating that Palin's rocky rollout came with a price.

A New National Journal poll released Tuesday showed that 37% of women were satisfied with Palin's selection, whereas 27% would have preferred someone else.

Still, one of McCain's closest advisors, Mark Salter, on Tuesday waved off the suggestion by a reporter that Palin might have to leave the ticket.

A policy team is giving Palin a crash course -- prepping her not only for the speech, being written by McCain speechwriter Matthew Scully, but for her debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Biden and for yet-unannounced media interviews.

The policy team includes McCain's chief economic advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Steve Biegun, a foreign policy advisor to former Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Besides the sexism argument, a central theme of the McCain campaign's defense was that Palin's experiences with her children were yet another connection she has to working-class Americans.

Salter noted that some have wondered whether Palin, mother of an infant with Down syndrome, has the wherewithal to serve in high office.

"Barack Obama has young children; is he somehow incapable of performing his duties as president of the United States?" Salter asked. "She has children. One of her daughters, like millions of American families, is having experience shared with millions of American families."

One of the campaign's leading female spokespeople, former business executive Carly Fiorina, pointed to a number of statements from Obama and Biden, noting that "American women are more highly tuned than ever to recognize and decry sexism in all its forms."

Some have compared the Palin introduction to the 1988 surprise announcement by George H.W. Bush that the little-known Sen. Dan Quayle would be his running mate.

Quayle made several quick missteps, and some thought he should have been dropped from the ticket. But aides such as Stuart K. Spencer were assigned to work with him, and had him campaign only in small towns and cities where the spotlight shined dimmer.

Although the Quayle introduction seemed "catastrophic" at the time, Spencer said, the firestorm dies down. Asked what Palin needs to accomplish in her speech, he said: "Just stay out of trouble."


Times staff writers Ole Jann, Maeve Reston and P.J. Huffstutter contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 04, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction Sarah Palin: The On the Media column in Wednesday's Section A mentioned a controversy about vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's actions in the firing of an Alaska state trooper who was once her brother-in-law. The state trooper, Mike Wooten, was not fired but suspended. Also, an article in Wednesday's Section A about the vetting of Palin said the Alaska governor had stayed in Middleton, Ohio, the night before she was announced as Sen. John McCain's running mate. She stayed in Middletown.
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