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Vetting of Palin is raising questions

Times Staff Writers

John McCain first met Sarah Palin in February. Six months later, he asked her to be his running mate.

The way McCain weighed and discarded vice presidential prospects over that time has come under scrutiny as the choice of Palin turns politically perilous. The question is whether McCain carefully vetted his selection and, if he did not, what that says about the judgment and decision-making the presumed Republican nominee would bring to the White House.

The campaign describes a process that left no proverbial stone unturned, with lawyers and investigators taking months to scour matters including Palin’s credit history and the formal complaints that citizens lodged against her as mayor of Wasilla and, for the last 21 months, as Alaska’s governor. Breaking two days of silence, McCain told reporters Tuesday in Pennsylvania, “The vetting process was completely thorough, and I’m grateful for the results.”

But others described a more cursory examination that has resulted in a series of surprises -- at least for some -- including the revelation that Palin’s unwed teenage daughter is five months pregnant.

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Lyda Green, president of the Republican-run Alaska State Senate, said she never heard from anyone connected with the McCain campaign, nor did others in the state whom Green considered obvious sources of useful information.

“I would definitely have talked to people in the [Republican] party,” said Green, a onetime ally of Palin whose relationship soured when she became governor. “I would have gone to the business community . . . major political folks around the state. I’ve not heard of anybody who’s been talked to or interviewed or questioned.”

Palin, who has been secluded since arriving Sunday night in St. Paul, will deliver her widely anticipated acceptance speech tonight or Thursday at the Republican National Convention. Asked Tuesday whether Palin would address “some of the controversies that have been swirling around her” -- involving her 17-year-old daughter, her husband’s long-ago drunk-driving arrest, her pursuit of Washington pork-barrel “earmarks” and her encouragement of a political party that favors a vote on Alaska’s secession from the United States -- campaign manager Rick Davis told reporters, “You’re going to have to tune in to witness it firsthand.”

But the questions have already forced Palin to curtail her activities as one of the party’s hottest political celebrities. She has skipped the usual round of meetings with party leaders and delegates. Her only interview since McCain announced her selection Friday was with People magazine.

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Still, strategists for McCain insist that none of the information that has trickled out was a surprise to the Arizona senator. “We knew all this stuff and had a high degree of confidence that it was going to be fine,” Mark Salter, the senator’s closest aide, said in an interview Tuesday.

A Republican strategist with close ties to the McCain camp, however, said Palin was a last-minute choice after McCain had given up on his preferred pick, Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, who addressed the convention Tuesday night. “He did so with such speed that they weren’t able to do the full vet,” said the GOP source, who did not want to be identified discussing the campaign’s internal machinations.

Salter denied that account and its implication that the examination of Palin was hurried or superficial. No one beyond a few aides, McCain and his wife, Cindy, know exactly what transpired, Salter said.

Palin was one of just a few governors who McCain, shopping for a running mate, met for a private 90-minute session at the February meeting of the National Governors Assn. Later that evening, the two followed up at a private reception, where McCain pressed Palin for her views on energy issues. Aides said McCain was “extremely impressed.”

When he assembled a list of 20 prospective running mates, Palin was among them. In early spring, campaign researchers began compiling 40-page dossiers on a number of contenders, including the Alaska governor. Salter, who was among those reviewing the materials, would not say how many dossiers were prepared. Palin was also asked to fill out a “very intrusive” questionnaire with 70 questions, Salter said, and underwent a three-hour interview with Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., a veteran Washington attorney in charge of McCain’s vetting process. Asked why many of Palin’s Alaskan colleagues were not contacted, Salter said Culvahouse and his team of lawyers “are very good and very discreet.”

McCain was especially sensitive about maintaining the privacy of his prospects after he was passed over in 1996 by the GOP nominee, Bob Dole. McCain had waited around his hotel room in Hawaii on the eve of Dole’s selection thinking he might get the call, but learned on television that Jack Kemp had been chosen.

McCain did not make up his mind on a running mate until last week. Along the way, he apparently gave serious thought to Lieberman, who was a Democrat -- and that party’s 2000 vice presidential standard-bearer. McCain also considered picking former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. But Lieberman and Ridge support legalized abortion, and conservative activists made it clear McCain would pay a price if he chose either one.

Also believed to be in the final mix were Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who ran for president and exchanged barbs with McCain before quitting the campaign in February. Salter refused to comment on any runners-up. “We didn’t float anybody’s name,” Salter said. "[McCain] thinks people’s feelings get hurt and he did not want to be responsible for that.”

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On Aug. 20, McCain headed to his Sedona, Ariz., retreat to confer with his wife, as well as Charlie Black, a top aide, about the vice presidential pick and GOP convention. McCain called Palin on Aug. 24, catching her at the Alaska State Fair, and the two spoke briefly. After spending two days campaigning, McCain returned to Sedona on Aug. 27 and told a Pittsburgh radio station that he was still making up his mind.

But he was serious enough about Palin to secretly fly her to Flagstaff, Ariz., for a late-night huddle with Salter and Steve Schmidt, the campaign’s chief strategist. The next morning, Palin was driven out the dusty road to McCain’s desert compound. Cindy McCain joined them midway through what amounted to the final job interview.

During a walk with his wife, McCain made up his mind. When the couple returned, McCain asked Palin to be his running mate. To keep the secret, the two split up. McCain flew to Dayton, Ohio, for a joint appearance the next day. Palin flew to nearby Middleton and checked into a hotel under an assumed name.

Despite the last few rough days, Salter said McCain had no regrets about his choice. Asked if there was any chance Palin would be dropped from the ticket, Salter responded indignantly: “Why? What would be the reason? Her daughter’s pregnant? A bunch of cable chatter? He made the right pick. He’s very excited.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Times staff writer Bob Drogin contributed to this report.

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