McCain's choice of running mate heads off potential rebellion

John McCain appeared last night to have energised his rank and file supporters and headed off a potential rebellion of conservative Christians at his party's convention in St Paul, Minnesota, this week thanks to his unorthodox choice of Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, as his running mate.

As delegates streamed into the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul for their four-day long gathering that begins today, the full impact of the Palin choice remained unclear. Democrats even, recovering from their widely praised convention in Denver seemed uncertain as to how best to respond.

But conservatives, who were so instrumental in getting the keys of the White House for George Bush twice in a row, were trumpeting the choice to the skies, applauding Mrs Palin's pro-life and pro-gun positions. The influential Rush Limbaugh used a familiar baseball metaphor to celebrate her inclusion on the ticket but inserted a vulgar epithet not often heard on mainstream radio here - “a home… run”.

“Palin = Guns, Babies, Jesus,” he wrote in an e-mail to fans. “Contrast that to Obama's bitter clingers. Obama just lost blue-collar, white Democratic voters in Pennsylvania and other states.”

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and a key evangelical voice, said he would now set aside doubts he had held about Mr McCain and support his ticket with Governor Palin on board.

That did not mean that Democrats and some Republicans were not focused on the depth of Mr McCain's gamble. It emerged that he had only met Mrs Palin once before a Republican Governors' Association in February and that her foreign policy credentials may be even skimpier than at first thought. When she travelled last year to visit Alaska reserve soldiers in Kuwait, she had first to apply for a passport.

But Mr McCain's wife Cindy shrugged off such concerns, saying that Mrs Palin had knowledge about Russia because her state is the closest U.S. state to Russia. “Remember, Alaska is the closest part of our continent to Russia. So it's not as if she doesn't understand what's at stake here," she said

Ms Palin's enviable popularity in her state - her approval rating, though lower than a year ago, remains at about 70 per cent - was offset by the reality that Alaska is a very small stage indeed. She was elected in December 2006 with 115,000 votes. That is only marginally more people than the Democrats crammed into the Mile High stadium in Denver last Thursday to hear Barack Obama's speech.

Even some in her own state could not hide their astonishment that she had been put on a ticket that had the potential to propel her into the history books as the first female vice president. “Did I wake up in a parallel universe? I am absolutely shocked,” said Andrew Halcro, a one-time Republican who ran against her for the governorship in Alaska.

Additionally, murmurs abounded about the not-so-subtle approach Mr McCain is making to women by going for Mrs Palin and especially independent and Democrat women who had put all their glass-ceiling hopes in Hillary Clinton. Reflecting comment that was seen all over the media in the last two days, Senator John Kerry said yesterday the manoeuvre was “an insult” to women everywhere because it assumed that gender was more important to them than policy.

A new CNN/USAToday poll yesterday showed meanwhile that just over half of Americans had never heard of Ms Palin until Friday and that only 39 per cent thought she was ready to be president in case of catastrophe befalling Mr McCain. The numbers have not been that low since George Bush Sr picked a well brushed but entirely obscure senator from Indiana as his running mate, Dan Quayle.

But the Bush-Quayle ticket was a successful one. And already there were voices warning Democrats not to underestimate her, particularly Joe Biden, a living encyclopaedia of foreign affairs, who will face her in a debate in St Louis on 2 October. His pitfalls include making her look too stupid with tricky questions on religious factionalism in Iraq or whatever else or becoming the patronising great uncle.

“The Palin choice was a huge risk for McCain,” commented Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Report in Washington. “But the danger for Democrats is, if they get overconfident and ridicule her, they could create a backlash of sympathy for her.”

What Mr McCain has surely done in the short term, however, is generate something that has been sorely lacking in the Republican field this election season - some genuine excitement. Delegates arriving in St Paul were abuzz almost as if they were children summoned by their ageing father to meet his new girlfriend for the first time.

If the party can sustain that sense of thrill all the way to November, it could prove critical. It was private polling done by the McCain camp that helped push towards Mrs Palin. It suggested that while most polls show him close to Mr Obama today, a wide enthusiasm gap makes winning in November unlikely.

Republican officials think that Mr McCain has solved that problem with the Palin pick. And they are cheered even more by the belief that it is the evangelical Christians who are most electrified - the same people who did so well by Mr Bush in 2000 and 2004.

Charmaine Yoest, a former top aide to presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee and a leading voice among conservative Republican women said the reaction to Mrs Palin has been beyond ecstatic. “I woke up and my e-mail was just going crazy,” she said here in St Paul. “And then when it was announced - it was like you couldn't breathe.”

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