Imagine a freezing morning next February. The newly elected President, John McCain, at 72 the oldest man to enter the White House, has died suddenly, and his Vice-President, Sarah Palin, is about to be sworn in. Aged 44, she will be the first female president in American history, and the world's reigning superpower will be led by a "hockey mom" whose only experience of office, aside from two years as governor of Alaska, was as mayor of her home town.
Or perhaps the scenario does not have to be that stark. In 2012 Mr McCain would be 76, and might decide not to seek a second term. Such possibilities will be in the minds of American voters when they face their moment of truth in the polling booth on 4 November. Ms Palin's Republican Party may deride Mr McCain's opponent, Barack Obama, as a political newcomer, but he has been a national name ever since he galvanised the Democratic convention of 2004 with a keynote address that marked him out as a star on the rise. By contrast, Sarah Palin was virtually unknown outside Alaska, a state most Americans have never visited, until just over a week ago.
So, 10 days on from Mr McCain's startling announcement of his running mate, how much more do we know about the woman who, eight weeks from now, could be a heartbeat away from the presidency? What lies behind the colourful exterior of Governor Palin, the self-described "pit bull with lipstick"? As reporters rushed to Alaska to dig up all they could, their initial discoveries threatened to derail her candidacy before the Republican convention had even begun.
An ethics enquiry is being held into allegations that she used improper influence to try to have the estranged husband of her sister sacked from his job as an Alaskan state trooper. It is due to report before the election. A supermarket tabloid picked up unproven rumours about an alleged affair she had with her husband's business partner. When the governor announced that her unmarried teenage daughter Bristol was already five months pregnant by her high-school sweetheart who described himself on his Facebook page as a "fucking Redneck", some Republicans were shocked.
There was speculation that Mr McCain might have to drop Mrs Palin from the ticket, as the Democrats had to do in 1972, when it emerged that their vice-presidential candidate, the late Senator Thomas Eagleton, had had electric shock treatment for a nervous disorder. But Mr McCain refused to budge, and the media speculation soon subsided. The fact that Bristol Palin would be having the baby went down well with the religious Republicans to whom Sarah Palin was supposed to appeal.
As more emerged about the former beauty queen who became mayor of her home town, Wasilla, 45 miles from Anchorage, Alaska's main city, the details of her family's moose-shooting, sports-obsessed lifestyle – not to mention the eccentric names of her children, from Track, the eldest, to Trig, the baby – put off as many Americans as it attracted. Whatever the unanswered questions about Sarah Palin, and at week's end many still remained (see accompanying report), come November very few people will be indifferent to her.
But as the vice-presidential nominee took the stage at the Republican convention in St Paul, Minnesota, on Wednesday night, with her no-nonsense school-teacher glasses and her hair swept up in a semi-beehive, the prevailing mood was curiosity. Would she prove that Mr McCain had taken a wild gamble in choosing her on instinct, and lost? But she gave a command performance.
Despite her neophyte status, Governor Palin proved an extraordinary hit with Middle America. Her address had been scripted by some of the best speechwriters in the land, true, but she delivered it in barnstorming style. Not only did she endear herself to the party's bedrock conservative base with her focus on faith and family, she did something extraordinary in mounting the first successful Republican attack on Mr Obama.
Breezily ignoring America's tricky racial politics, she declared that a small-town mayor, as she had been, "is kind of like a community organiser [Mr Obama's job before entering politics], except you have real responsibilities. Barack Obama wrote two best-selling memoirs, but he never authored a Bill". Even the polystyrene pillars of his Denver speech had come from a Hollywood back lot, she implied. She was a living refutation of the men who rule Washington, but do not live by the rules they espouse.
At a coffee shop in Wasilla, a woman named Jubilee declared that she knew Sarah Palin well and was a huge admirer for the governor. "She's a pistol," she said. "She can get things done, and we have the same values; we're both Christians." Then there was Swiss immigrant Heidi Ruess, a 74-year-old pilot instructor who is still flying floatplanes deep into the Alaskan bush. She was equally enthusiastic about Mrs Palin. "She really is a fighter, and anyone who underestimates her usually ends up losing," she said.
Even Democrats in Wasilla have grudging admiration for their mayor turned governor, and now potential vice-president. Tom Holohan, a computer engineer, and his wife Stacy were both at the community sports centre, which she had built with money secured from Washington, watching their son play hockey. "She is such a genuine person and of such integrity that I have been going on the internet defending her from all the unfair attacks," said Mr Holohan. "I don't share her values, and I really don't like her opinions on gays and creationism, but she is a good thing."
Evangelical Christians recognised her as one of their own. Even when she was talking about a prospective gas pipeline across Alaska, she asked people to pray that it would be built, and she calls the war in Iraq, where her son Track is about to be deployed, "a task that is from God".
Democrats know that Barack Obama and Joe Biden will have to be careful not to come across as sexist bullies. Hillary Clinton has been deployed, not only to deflect this danger but to remind the millions of Democratic women who supported her that Sarah Palin might be the same sex, but her approach to almost any policy you care to name could not be more different.
Will Sarah Palin prove to be an inspired choice for her party, one who can not only energise evangelical Republicans unenthusiastic about John McCain, but also bring over women and working-class Democrats who, whisper it not, might have a little trouble with a black candidate? Or will some disastrous revelation come out of Alaska, a state with some of the dirtiest politics in the nation?
No one can tell, but if Sarah Palin should somehow find herself inside the White House, it could raise another intriguing scenario: how about an all-female contest in 2012 – President Palin against Senator Hillary Clinton?
Digging the dirt – what her enemies are claiming...
Sarah Palin's candidature has sent liberal bloggers into overdrive, combing her life and political record for paydirt. The mainstream media are scrambling to catch up. These are the better-substantiated points or claims:
The trooper affair
Sarah Palin has a credible record as an anti-corruption Governor, but an official investigation is under way into whether she fired the public safety commissioner Walt Monegan because he would not dismiss State Trooper Mike Wooten. Wooten went through a messy divorce from Palin's younger sister, Molly McCann before her election. He denies threatening Palin's father during an argument with his then wife. Mr Monegan says he was dismissed for "my unwillingness to take special action against her former brother-in-law". Palin says he was fired over budget disagreements. Palin was later forced to admit that more than two dozen calls to state officials were made regarding Wooten by her administration. The investigation will report by 10 October.
Palin has voiced doubts over whether global warming is "man-made". She pushed through new oil taxes in Alaska, yet also – unlike McCain – supports opening offshore areas and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Palin successfully defeated a state ballot initiative to increase protection of salmon streams from mining operations.
Opposes listing the polar bear as a threatened species, citing the threat to Alaska's oil and gas development. Is also against efforts to protect a genetically unique beluga whale, which has decreased in numbers from 1,300 in the 1980s to just 375. And she opposed an initiative to end aerial hunting of wolves and bears by private hunters, and is accused of approving a $400,000 state-funded campaign to influence the vote.
Palin first obtained a passport in 2007, to visit Alaska National Guard troops serving in Kuwait and Iraq. This, plus a visit to Germany and Canada, is her only foreign travel. A spokeswoman previously claimed that Ireland was among countries Palin had visited, but a McCain aide later admitted this was only a refuelling stop.
Despite campaigning in Wasilla as a fiscal conservative, she increased total spending by 63 per cent and left the 6,500-population city with about $20m of long-term debt. In return, the self-styled "hockey mom" built a $14.7m sports centre and other facilities. She is also reported to have inquired of the local librarian whether certain, unspecified, books could be banned.
Sex and God
A supermarket tabloid claims Palin had an affair with her husband's then business partner, but so far there is no evidence for this. She opposes abortion in all cases, unless a mother's life is at risk. She is against what she calls "explicit" sex education, favouring only projects that promote abstinence. Opposes gay marriageand spousal rights, and her church is promoting a conference that promises to convert gays to heterosexuality through prayer. She is in favour of schools teaching creationism as well as evolution.
No evidence whatsoever that Palin's four-month-old baby son, Trig, is – as several bloggers allege – the child of her eldest daughter, Bristol, 17, now five months pregnant. But Trig's birth has raised questions. On 17 April, just six weeks after announcing her pregnancy, Palin, 44, gave a speech in Dallas after her waters broke. Rather than go straight to hospital, she flew for 10 hours to Alaska (via Seattle), was driven 45 minutes from Anchorage, a city with top hospitals, to Palmer. She then gave birth and returned to work three days later.
David Randall and Megan Clay-Jones
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