Palin's path to the top paved with good luck

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 2, 2008 

St. PAUL, Minn. — A charmed political career launched Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin from small-town mayor to the Republican National Convention, where she's set to accept the nomination for vice president Wednesday night.

Call it luck, the hand of providence or perfect timing, but it has blessed Palin throughout her public life.

"There's no question that a sequence of opportunities has opened for her and everything fell beautifully in place," said Ivan Moore, an Anchorage pollster and political consultant. "That should not detract from the fact that she took perfect advantage of it."

She gained a reputation as an ethics reformer shortly before FBI raids on the state Capitol made corruption a huge issue for Alaska voters. Then high oil prices flooded the state government with money, saving her from having to make tough choices on taxes and budget cuts. More recently, the national mood turned to seeking change and fresh faces from outside Washington, and then John McCain discovered Palin. In short, she's enjoyed a sun-kissed political career.

"She's been in the right place at the right time," said state House speaker John Harris, a Republican from Valdez. "And she's taken advantage."

Like a local coffeehouse singer suddenly tapped to star at Madison Square Garden, Palin will take a stage Wednesday night that's far bigger than any she's ever faced.

Her career began in Wasilla, Alaska, population about 7,000, where she was the mayor in the late 1990s. The town was booming. Sales tax revenues poured in from big box stores, allowing Palin to gain a reputation as a fiscal conservative by cutting property taxes even as the town budget grew to include projects such as an ice rink complex.

Palin later leveled charges that the chairman of the Alaska Republican Party was doing party business on the state's dime. She also took a stand against the Republican state attorney general, who helped push a project for a company in which he had a business interest.

Those were risky moves for Palin at the time, said Gregg Erickson, the former publisher of an influential publication on state government who's watched Alaska politics for decades. Palin was an upstart challenging the state's political power structure. But when the FBI later discovered how bad the corruption was in Alaska politics, Palin already had established a reputation as a reformer.

Suddenly, there was no better position to have in Alaska politics than outsider.

"She was either incredibly lucky or incredibly prescient in that she turned out to be damn near the only Republican in the state who had stood up to corruption," Erickson said.

Next, Palin challenged incumbent Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2006. Others in the race had more experience, and Palin was a dark horse. But Murkowski was unpopular, seen by many as an old-style politician who angered the public with actions such as buying a state jet for his travel despite voter and legislative opposition. He proved to be the perfect foil for Palin's campaign.

"He'd hurt himself badly," said Harris, the Republican state House speaker. "That opened the door for somebody like Sarah Palin, who ran on a sort of reform ticket. The time was right and the public absorbed it."

Palin beat Murkowski five to one in the Republican primary on Aug. 22, 2006. Nine days later, the FBI raided the offices of state legislators, which positioned her perfectly for the general election campaign.

Fortune smiled again when Palin became the governor. Well-timed indictments and convictions of state legislators for taking bribes to help the oil industry boosted her key proposals. Those included a big tax hike on the oil companies and a natural gas pipeline plan that the companies fought.

Palin was also fortunate in avoiding the budget problems that her predecessors struggled with. Oil prices have skyrocketed during her term as governor, leaving the state government swimming in cash from oil taxes. That let her avoid the backlash from raising taxes or cutting services that had dogged previous governors.

The state was so flush that she could even hand out money, a $1,200 check to every Alaskan to help with energy prices.

Palin was also in the right place at the right time when presidential candidate McCain needed a social conservative who was also a reformer, someone who'd fire up Republicans but also keep his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, from monopolizing the theme of change.

That leads her to Wednesday night's stage.

Even a lucky streak can suffer a stumble; Palin felt forced to reveal on the eve of accepting the vice-presidential nomination that her unmarried teenage daughter is pregnant. Republican convention delegates rallied behind her overwhelmingly, however, saying it was a private family matter that Palin was handling well.

Despite that unwelcome development, the character of her career remains clear to Erickson and other Alaskan political analysts: Her rise to the national stage was paved with good fortune.

"But it is hard to separate luck from foresight," Erickson added.

(Cockerham reports for the Anchorage Daily News. Tom Kizzia of the Anchorage Daily News contributed to this article from Anchorage, Alaska.)

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