'Pit Bull' Palin Raises Biting Questions

'Pit Bull' Palin Raises Biting Questions

By Clarence Page - September 10, 2008

If the Republican presidential nominee seems to have an extra spring in his step and twinkle in his smile as he campaigns with his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, at his side, it is understandable.

Palin's star power has swelled the crowds at McCain's rallies to match that usually enjoyed by their Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, another beneficiary of a blockbuster convention speech. McCain's post-convention bump in the polls wiped out Obama's bump from the Democratic convention. Even more newsworthy for a Republican candidate, McCain even surged ahead of Obama among white women, a must-win demographic for Democrats for more than a half-century. No wonder he's been hugging the lady so warmly on the campaign trail.

With polls showing more than 80 percent of voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, McCain embraced the message that voters want "change," which has been Obama's winning theme. Despite an adult life spent mostly in Congress, he became "Mr. Change Agent."

Yet, as much as the "Sarah Effect" could help lead McCain to victory in November, it also contains the seeds of his campaign's possible defeat.

Unlike former Vice President Dan Quayle, who had a very bumpy introduction to the public in the 1988 Republican race, Palin had more than a week to speak to the public aided by teleprompters and prepared texts and uninterrupted by reporters' questions.

In fact, unlike Obama who sprung onto the national scene in 2004 with one memoir already published and a second one to come in 2006, Palin arrived unvetted by reporters and, it turns out, barely vetted by McCain.

That could backfire. First impressions and high expectations always are surprised and often disappointed by additional information.

For example, delegates and television viewers loved the punch lines in her convention speech, like her self-description as a "hockey mom" which she equated to a "pit bull" with "lipstick." But there's nothing like additional information to ruin a good punch line.

For example, she boasted about stopping the proposed $400 million federally funded "bridge to nowhere," as it was derisively called, and said proudly that the state could build its own bridge. She did not mention her own support for the proposed bridge during her gubernatorial campaign. She also didn't mention that her decision to stop the project came after it had become a national embarrassment -- or that Alaska kept the money for other uses.

The bridge is significant in the McCain-Palin battle against "earmarks," the discretionary federal funds that some people call "pork," especially when the money is going to somebody else's state.

Palin and McCain beat up Obama on the campaign trail for the "pork" he brought to Illinois. But, they left out how Palin's sparsely populated state leads the nation in pork-per-person. Details, details. As Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert said, "We'll cross that bridge to nowhere when we come to it."

Palin's position on abstinence education is similarly curious -- and convoluted. Various media reports said she agreed with McCain and the GOP platform that children should be taught that abstinence until marriage is the only safe way to avoid pregnancy and disease. After all, that's the answer she gave on a 2006 survey during her gubernatorial campaign.

But during a debate weeks later, she proclaimed herself "pro-contraception" and said condoms ought to be discussed in schools alongside abstinence. "I'm pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues," she said during a debate in Juneau. Palin said she opposed "explicit" sex-ed programs, but considered other discussion of condoms to be "relatively benign." How can one discuss condoms without being "explicit?" Beats me. But I guess I'm just another one of those nosy elite media types.

When the Los Angeles Times pursued this contradiction, Palin spokeswoman said the governor stands by her earlier support for both abstinence and contraception education. A McCain campaign spokesperson reiterated McCain's belief that abstinence is "the only safe and responsible alternative." That's why I just can't wait for the vice presidential debates -- between Palin and Palin.

At least, we're not hearing much talk from the McCain camp about how Obama is a silver-throated "celebrity" orator without much "experience" in government. That argument wasn't working for McCain any better than it worked for Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Instead McCain, whose campaign slogan is "Country First," has found an inexperienced, silver-throated orator of his own to be his running mate and helped her to become a celebrity. He also has raised new questions. How carefully, we wonder, did he choose the woman whom he wants to be a heartbeat away from the presidency? And how much did he put politics first?

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services Inc.

Clarence Page

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