DENVER — Win or lose, John McCain threw the long ball Friday when he stunned the nation by picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
His choice of a young, largely unknown woman from as far outside Washington as possible shakes up the presidential campaign and has the potential to either help him win the White House or doom his chances.
On the upside, her reputation as a maverick reformer willing to buck her own party magnifies McCain's own renegade image and could help him win independent voters.
And her gender — the first woman ever on a Republican ticket and only the second in history after Geraldine Ferraro on the Democratic side in 1984 — could help McCain steal away some of the women who had supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries but were angry that she was not chosen as Barack Obama's running mate.
The downside: Palin's relative inexperience in office — she served 10 years in small town government and is now only two years into her first term as governor — undercuts McCain's own charge that Obama is too inexperienced.
This choice also could leave those voters who are nervous about McCain's age — 72 on Friday — anxious that he'd put a novice a heartbeat away from the presidency, and they could have doubts about her ability to handle foreign affairs or a military crisis.
"She's the ultimate high risk, high reward choice," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Polling Institute at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University. "She's a game changer either way."
McCain clearly wants her to underscore his own history as an independent thinker often willing to challenge his own party — a critical point as he tries to show voters that he can be different from unpopular President George W. Bush despite his support of Bush's tax and foreign policies.
Known as "Sarah the Barracuda" for her aggressive style leading a championship high school basketball team, Palin earned the title anew when she became mayor of Wasilla, a small town outside Anchorage, and fired department heads loyal to her predecessor.
As a member of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she pushed an ethics investigation of fellow commission member and state Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich for conflicts of interests with oil companies. He was forced to resign from the panel, and later admitted ethics violations.
She also worked with a Democrat to go after Alaska Atty. Gen. Gregg Renkes for ethics problems. He also resigned.
Palin was elected governor in 2006, riding what the Almanac of American Politics called her reputation as "a maverick reformer at arm's length from her party" to defeat Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski in a primary and then Democrat Tony Knowles in the general election.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008