Love her or hate her, Palin is GOP's lightning rod

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 16, 2008 

WASHINGTON — You betcha, Sarah Palin sure is exciting all those hard-core Republican activists who've never been too keen on John McCain.

But is she alienating those darn independents and pesky moderates who've always liked McCain for his maverick streak?

In just seven weeks since Republican presidential hopeful McCain made Palin his running mate, the Alaska governor has gone from being a virtual unknown for most Americans to being perhaps the most controversial figure in American politics.

Tens of thousands of Republican activists roar Palin's name at rallies from Florida to Ohio to Colorado and beyond, while similar numbers of detractors mock her mannerisms in TV interviews and guffaw at "Saturday Night Live" satirist Tina Fey's spot-on impersonations of her.

Melody Hall, a medical-records aide who lives in Englewood, Ohio, near Dayton, said she was a registered Republican but had voted for Democratic candidates.

Hall likes Palin a great deal.

"She seems to be the all-American person," Hall said. "She's middle-class, she has children, she's got a pregnant daughter and a disabled child. She's average in a good way."

Hall said she was moving toward Barack Obama but that Palin's slot on the Republican ticket had led her to look more closely at McCain.

Pat Palmer, on the other hand, runs a trucking company with her husband from their home in North Las Vegas. She's a Republican who — "unfortunately," she said — voted twice for President Bush.

She's leaning toward voting for Obama, however, partly because of her doubts about Palin.

"She seems like a very nice person, but you have to think ahead," Palmer said. "At McCain's age, if he was to become president and something happened, God forbid, and she had to step in to fill his shoes — I don't think she's qualified to do that."

Charlie Black, a Republican consultant and senior adviser to McCain, said Palin had excited Republican activists, drawing many new volunteers to work in campaign offices across the country.

"I have no evidence that she's alienated anybody," Black said. "She has helped to galvanize the conservative base. She's already done more for the ticket than most VP candidates ever do. She's clearly a net gain."

Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at the University of California in Riverside, said Palin had energized conservatives who'd never really trusted McCain.

Now, though, Palin is preventing McCain from gaining ground among moderate voters who are undecided in the White House race, Bowler said.

"Palin helped him generate enthusiasm and get more yard signs put up, but she is an increasing liability," he said. "She's got a lot of negatives. Choosing her was a short-term high, but the hangover is terrible."

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Palin revived a faltering McCain campaign.

"Once she got on the ticket, it was like an infusion of adrenaline," MacManus said.

MacManus has been struck by what she's heard in recent weeks from moderate Republicans along the crucial Interstate-4 corridor that cuts across central Florida, from Tampa through Orlando to Daytona Beach.

"For the first time, Republicans can say they have a diverse ticket," MacManus said. "They don't have two white guys up there running. Particularly women Republicans feel very proud of that."

Palin has broader appeal, MacManus said, than news reports often describe.

"There are misimpressions that she's only appealing to evangelicals," MacManus said.

In the third presidential debate Wednesday night, moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked Obama and McCain whether their running mates are prepared to be president.

Obama answered the question directly.

After ticking off a long list of Delaware Sen. Joe Biden's virtues and achievements, Obama said, "On the key issues that are of importance to American families, Joe Biden's always been on the right side, and I think he will make an outstanding president if, heaven forbid, something happened to me."

McCain didn't give Palin such a strong endorsement for the nation's highest office.

Calling her "a reformer through and through" and a "breath of fresh air," McCain said, "She has ignited our party and people all over America that have never been involved in the political process. And I can't tell you how proud I am of her and her family."

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