Thursday, September 04, 2008

For GOP Delegates, Sarah Palin on the Ticket Is a No-Brainer

By Stuart Rothenberg

We won’t know for at least a few days, maybe even a few weeks, whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was a smart addition to the Republican ticket, but it already is clear that delegates at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., are close to unanimous in their enthusiasm for the self-proclaimed “hockey mom.”

Yes, Palin’s selection pleased social conservatives and gun owners, who see her as an unapologetic supporter of their causes. As one former Member of Congress from a swing state told me on the floor on the opening night of the Republican convention, “The party was with McCain intellectually, but not emotionally. Now, with the selection of Palin, that’s changed.”

Another Republican, a moderate from New England who doesn’t necessarily agree with all of Palin’s positions on the issues, was no less enthusiastic.

“She connects with people. She’s the mom next door,” said the Republican, who argued that Palin’s greatest strength is getting presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) back to his maverick image and message.

Another Republican, who hails from a state that Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) surely will carry in November but who could help rebuild his party’s reputation in his home state, also raved about the pick, saying that all the feedback he received about Palin, including from family members, was positive.

McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate clearly injected a dose of enthusiasm and energy into Republican regulars, who had already committed to support their party’s ticket but found the prospect less then exciting. But the selection of Alaska’s governor changed all that.

Surprises are energizing, even if they are inherently risky. But for McCain, the selection of Palin has energized Republicans in a way that could help the party eat into the Democrats’ advantage on fundraising and turnout.

But any neutral observer must be careful not to get caught up in momentary enthusiasm for Palin on the convention floor. Conventions tend to be misleading. Well- orchestrated events, whether with fireworks at football stadiums or with well-produced videos inside hockey arenas, lead one to draw premature conclusions.

The revelation that Palin’s daughter is five months pregnant didn’t seem to depress GOP delegates’ enthusiasm about her selection, but only a naive partisan Republican would fail to acknowledge the possible dangers of Palin’s nomination.

The Alaska governor remains an unknown, and it isn’t clear how she will perform on the campaign trail and during her sole debate with Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden (D), Obama’s running mate.

But at least Palin’s fortune is in her own hands. She will have the opportunity to prove to voters that she’s ready for the job, and she should benefit from relatively low expectations, particularly about her ability to debate Biden.

While Palin’s performance initially after being selected was good, she has never before been under the political microscope, and she’ll face a national media that will test her repeatedly, both on her knowledge of issues and on world leaders and events, as well as on her areas of agreement and disagreement with McCain.

One GOP consultant was even more explicit about the risks, arguing that reporters are likely to compete with each other to try to trip up Palin and embarrass her.

Some Republican insiders continue to worry about Palin’s selection, suggesting that her relative lack of experience undermines McCain’s great advantage against Obama, and fearing that Palin simply will fail to pass the smell test as a possible presidential successor.

Yes, Palin’s selection probably dilutes the effectiveness of the “experience” and “readiness” argument for McCain, but it does not obliterate it. Palin, after all, is running for her party’s No. 2 spot, while Obama is his party’s nominee for president.

And those GOP operatives who fear that Palin could be “another Dan Quayle” might remember that Quayle did not stop then-Vice President George H.W. Bush from being elected president of the United States in 1988.

That election, following Quayle’s embarrassing introduction to the American media and public, should remind us that vice presidential selections aren’t nearly as important six weeks after they are made as they are when they are announced. In any case, in her first few days as McCain’s VP pick, Palin has performed far better than Quayle did.

We’ll all have to see how Palin performs on the stump, in interviews and during her debate with Biden. But so far, the sheer shock of her selection has acted like a shot of adrenaline for a political party that seemed in a coma. That, in itself, is an accomplishment.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 3, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.