Soon after Sarah Palin was elected mayor of the foothill town of Wasilla, Alaska, she startled a local music teacher by insisting in casual conversation that men and dinosaurs coexisted on an Earth created 6,000 years ago -- about 65 million years after scientists say most dinosaurs became extinct -- the teacher said.
After conducting a college band and watching Palin deliver a commencement address to a small group of home-schooled students in June 1997, Wasilla resident Philip Munger said, he asked the young mayor about her religious beliefs.
Palin told him that "dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time," Munger said. When he asked her about prehistoric fossils and tracks dating back millions of years, Palin said "she had seen pictures of human footprints inside the tracks," recalled Munger, who teaches music at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and has regularly criticized Palin in recent years on his liberal political blog, called Progressive Alaska.
The idea of a "young Earth" -- that God created the Earth about 6,000 years ago, and dinosaurs and humans coexisted early on -- is a popular strain of creationism.
Though in her race for governor she called for faith-based "intelligent design" to be taught along with evolution in Alaska's schools, Gov. Palin has not sought to require it, state educators say.
As governor and in her formative role as mayor of Wasilla, Palin has trod carefully between her evangelical faith and public policy on issues such as abortion and library books. At times she has retreated when her moves have sparked controversy or proved politically impractical.
She has harnessed the political muscle of social conservatives and antiabortion groups, yet she did not push hard for a special legislative session on abortion, and she did not challenge a court ruling that allowed health insurance for same-sex partners of state workers.
Palin has attended a number of prayer sessions with pastors and has quietly sought their guidance, but she is often mum on matters of faith in high-profile public forums.
Her aides say Palin's caution at the intersection of religion and governance is a studied effort to share her beliefs without forcing them on Alaska.
"She's obviously an intensively religious person," said Bill McAllister, Palin's chief spokesman as governor. "She understands that she's the governor and not preacher in chief. Religion informs her decisions, but she is not out to impose her views on Alaska."
McAllister said that he never heard Palin make such remarks about dinosaurs and that Palin preferred not to discuss her views on evolution publicly.
"I've never had a conversation like that with her or been apprised of anything like that," McAllister said. He added that "the only bigotry that's still safe is against Christians who believe in their faith."
Palin's critics say she holds back from trying to codify her faith-based views when she senses it will cost her politically.
"She's got a fine-tuned sense of how far to push," said John Stein, who guided Palin into her political career before she toppled him as Wasilla's mayor.
Stein said Palin displayed only hints of her fundamentalist Assembly of God upbringing when he first backed her for a nonpartisan run for Wasilla City Council in the early 1990s. But in 1996, when Palin ousted Mayor Stein with the aid of pink-colored antiabortion mailers and busloads of Christian grass-roots activists, she grew more overt about her plans, he said.
She combined her staff meetings with prayer sessions, Stein said, and upset the town's chief librarian by asking what the process would be for banning books. According to Stein, bans were never carried out only because "the library director was horrified and stood up to her."
Geri McCann, who ran the town museum under Mayor Palin, counters: "Sarah brought it up because she knew there was a moral majority in Wasilla who needed their voices heard."
During an October 2006 debate in the Alaska governor's race, Palin urged that evolution and creationist ideas be taught together in state schools. "Don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides," she said.
But since taking office in December 2006, Palin has made no moves to impose the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design," the modern version of creationist thought, in Alaska schools.
"As far as teachers are concerned, we haven't seen any push," said Joan Sargent, a Fairbanks teacher who heads the Alaska Science Teachers Assn. Teachers already have the flexibility to introduce creationist views, as an addendum to the mainstream study of evolution, Sargent said.
Palin is "still new at this game," said Democratic state Rep. Les Gara, whose colleagues also have gained leverage against Palin through a power-sharing arrangement with Palin rival Lyda Green, a Republican who is president of the state Senate.
In the 2006 governor's race, Palin was unequivocal in her opposition to abortion. In a questionnaire from the conservative Eagle Forum, she wrote: "I am pro-life," adding that she would agree to allow abortion only in medical cases where "the mother's life would end."
But Palin, who took office in December 2006, has not made Alaska a battleground on the issue.
When two bills emerged in the Alaska Legislature this year to restrict abortion -- one to require parental consent and the other to outlaw dilation-and-extraction procedures, called partial-birth abortion by opponents -- Palin said she was ready to sign them into law.
But both efforts were killed by Democrats. And when Green, who supported the measures, pressed for a special session to deal with abortion, Palin instead chose a special session to secure a natural gas pipeline project.
Antiabortion leaders said they understood Palin's delay on the issue because of other state concerns.
"She's a woman of integrity and we trust her," said Karen Lewis of Alaska Right to Life. "Sometimes you have to wait."
Palin also did not challenge an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that mandated health insurance benefits for same-sex partners. Instead she signed a nonbinding referendum that asked voters their opinion on the issue.
"She's been careful not to squander all her political capital on social conservative issues," said Allison Mendel, an attorney whose lawsuit led to the insurance ruling.
Palin has appeared at prayer sessions and church functions across Alaska and has turned to her childhood pastor and other religious leaders for guidance.
"She uses us as a sounding board," said the Rev. Paul Riley, who spent 30 years leading the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, where Palin worshiped until a few years ago. Riley said he and other pastors formed prayer circles around Palin in Anchorage at several "One Lord Sunday" events -- which bring together various churches -- and had offered prayers at similar events since she became governor.
In April, Palin told 500 people at an Assembly of God conference in the Anchorage Sheraton about the trials ahead in raising her youngest child, Trig. Born that month, he has Down syndrome.
"The whole group stood up and prayed beside her," Riley said. The pastors also prayed that Palin's efforts to win a major natural gas pipeline project would lead to a "blessing."
In one of her more controversial appearances in the Wasilla church, Palin told a group of ministry students in June to pray that sending troops to Iraq was part of "God's plan."
In a speech this month at a deployment ceremony for her Iraq-bound soldier son, Palin called the conflict a "righteous cause."
McAllister said Palin did not know that she was being taped when she made the Iraq war remarks at the church. And her practice of turning to local pastors for guidance and prayer is in line with the practices of other American political leaders, he said.
"It's nothing out of the ordinary," McAllister said. "Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did it."
Palin grew up steeped in Pentecostalism at the Wasilla church, where she learned "memory verses" from the Bible as a young "Missionette" -- the church's equivalent of a Girl Scout.
Theron Horn, the church's youth pastor at the time and now a Minnesota businessman, often told Palin and her classmates that they could grow up to be anything -- including politicians. Horn said he "was just trying to get the kids to see their potential," but Riley said it was a turning point for Palin.
Palin was accustomed early on to the sight of churchgoers ecstatically declaring their faith by speaking in tongues -- a practice familiar to the more than 6 million Americans who are members of Pentecostal churches.
Neither Riley nor Tim McGraw, who took over as pastor when Riley retired in 1986, recalled seeing Palin taking part in the charismatic prayers.
But "whether she did or not doesn't matter," said McGraw, who now leads the Yosemite Christian Center in Madera, Calif. "We're not some sect on the fringe. This is a reputable denomination of Christianity."
Although she now worships in traditional fundamentalist churches in Wasilla and Juneau, Palin's formative years in Pentecostal churches have been a target for some bloggers and Democratic opponents. They point to controversial statements from some of her pastors about converting gays and Jews and to her own comments about the Iraq war.
"It's legitimate to ask questions about candidates who come from a fundamentalist environment with a black-and-white worldview, and want to know how it would affect their approach on all kinds of issues," said Paul S. Boyer, a retired University of Wisconsin history professor who has written about the role of religious prophecy on public policy.
But Douglas Wead, an author and former aide to President George H.W. Bush, argues that the campaign brush fires over Palin's religious background and pastors' statements ignores or trivializes the emergence of evangelical Christianity in the American mainstream.
"Are we saying they can't participate in public life?" Wead asked.