Leonard Doyle: In Alaska, reputation of Palin is still whiter than white

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The skater moves swiftly across the ice, slamming the puck past the goalkeeper's face into the back of the net. Wasilla's hockey moms and dads erupt while players smash headlong into their opponents. Dog-sledding, moose hunting and snowmobiles, this is the town where the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin grew up. Only politics can rival hockey here as the favourite contact sport, and as locals testify, she excels at both. The tactics she learnt at the same community ice rink have fuelled her meteoric rise to national prominence and the main stage at the Republican convention last night.

Wasilla calls itself the "Home of the Iditarod", the 1,000-mile dog-sled race into the wilderness of Alaska. It sits beneath two majestic mountain ranges but the town itself, 40 miles from Anchorage, is less spectacular. With a lot of help from its most famous daughter it has been reborn as an unplanned strip mall, spread along the picturesque highway, with chain stores punctuated by incongruous stands of Sitka spruce, rowdy oilmen's bars and tattoo parlours.

Across Alaska, youngsters still grow up shooting moose and reindeer before learning to drive. Sarah Palin likes to tell audiences that her favourite meal is moose-meat stew, preferably eaten after a day out on a snow machine. Like so many Alaskans she revels in the can-do traditions of the frontier. But she has turned it into a political brand along with her Christian fundamentalist faith. And the Republican Party was hoping last night that a little northern exposure would help rally America's Christian conservatives to the standard of John McCain.

Few people in Wasilla have been left in doubt as to Palin's effectiveness. The sports centre is part of the Palin battering-ram legacy. It was built, despite the objections of many in Wasilla, with the help of a federal grant, which the then Mayor Palin hired a lobbyist to secure. There was even a short-lived attempt to have her recalled as mayor, but she saw off the opposition by ruthlessly sacking officials who she declared were part of an "old boys' network."

She encouraged "big box" retailers like Wal Mart to set up shop and watched as the town's population more than doubled to 6,000 in a few years. Another 35,000 live in the surrounding area and there are daily traffic jams in and out of Anchorage 40 miles away. "The town is a wild west show for development," says Palin's political ally Curt Menard and local power with a touch of pride.

But for the harsh climate and the ubiquitous parkas, Wasilla's unlovely urban heart could be anywhere in America. Those who live and work here are the struggling blue-collar workers who may have a determining say in the November presidential election. They are the very people Barack Obama inadvertently insulted when he said – off the record – that tend to "cling" to their guns and their religion during harsh economic times. Wasilla is also a place where hard-working people can get ahead, as Governor Palin herself has proved. Her family were among the thousands who flocked north to frontier towns to fulfil their ambitions. Their story of making it through grit and hard work rather than through education – like the Obamas – is one that resonates across much of middle America.

Governor Palin was born in Idaho. The prospect of work, higher wages and a new start in an untamed wilderness took her father, Chuck Heath, north Alaska when she was three months old. Her father was a teacher and track coach while her mother, Sally, was the local school secretary. Palin studied journalism and political science in Idaho and it was while competing in the Miss Alaska contest that she won the runner up title of Miss Congeniality.

Sarah Palin is now being accused of thrusting her fundamentalist Christian views on the town when she was mayor in the 1990s. Overnight she faced accusations that she tried to have unsuitable books removed from the town's library and forced many officials out of office, including the librarian. The ex-librarian is not talking, and locals say the accusation is unfounded and comes from Ms Palin's political enemies.

The portrait of a religious fundamentalist is not one that Stacy Holohan or her husband Tom recognise. "She and her sisters were tomboys," said Stacy. "We know her real well and are confident that she will make a great vice president. We actually think she'd be better than John McCain." What is odd about this statement is that Stacy and her husband Tom are both Democrats of decidedly liberal views. Both were raised in Wasilla; neither hunts nor goes to church, yet they are full of admiration for the small-town girl who has made it to the political big time. "I'm a hairdresser and we do her mom's hair over at the salon" said Stacy, 35, bursting with pride at the prospect that someone she knows well enough to hug on the street might soon be stepping into Dick Cheney's shoes. "Even though we hold different political views, we get so angry at all these attacks on her," she said.

For the Democrats, quick to ridicule Governor Palin as a politician far out of her depth, the fear must be that her all-American image as a mother of five children, who is married to an Alaskan who is an oilman, fisherman and champion musher, will appeal to a swathe of undecided voters. Only a week ago Sarah Palin was a virtual unknown outside Alaska. Last night, at the Republican convention in St Paul, three time zones away from her home state, she was busy introducing herself as the antidote to the Obama-Biden Democratic ticket.

It's easy to see why the conservative base of the Republican Party believes it has a champion on their hands. They see in Governor Pain a politician who will amplify voter's queasiness about Barack Obama and the sense that he does not really share American values, however they are defined.

Another supporter in Wasilla is Scott Hessinger, a carpenter who moved to Alaska from "the lower 48" as locals call the rest of America to find work. "She's got a lot of support here in Alaska and when the rest of the country gets to know her they will see what a formidable person she is," he said.

Tom Kizzia, a local writer, calls Palin "the Joan of Arc of Alaska politics" and has tracked her career since she challenged oil taxes and the construction of a natural gas pipeline and won. "The biggest mistake people make is to underestimate her," he said. "Those who attack her come off looking like bullies and while she can be a bit imperious, she does get things done, often against the odds."

It's after 9pm and still light as the parents at the community hall gather up their children to go home. Stacy Holohan has one parting shot. "Just remember", she says, "she's not a wimp, and she can take on the best of them and win. We know."

But at the Windbreak cafe, where stuffed salmon and elk decorate the walls and a birch-bark canoe hangs from the ceiling, some would disagree. One is Al Chouinard, a long-time resident and oil man who spits in disgust at the mention of her name. "All she's done is give tax breaks to big retailers and push her family values on us," he says.

"When people get past the glamour and looks at what she's done they will see it's of no value and that she just a fresh-faced version of the establishment. Personally I can't stand her."

The First Dude

In the polite circles of the Republican Governors Association they call Todd Palin, 44-year-old husband of Sarah Palin, the First Gentleman of Alaska. But in the Anchorage newspapers and on the oil fields where he works for British Petroleum, they prefer First Dude. It is a better fit for a guy who will not be comfortable on the cocktail circuit of Washington DC, should the McCain-Palin ticket win in November. Mr Palin, whose grandmother is Yup'ik Indian, is an outdoors guy, who also has a commercial fishing business. He is best known as a four-time winner of Alaska's annual 2,000-mile snowmobile race, the Iron Dog Competition – completing it this year with a broken arm.

As the Governor's husband, his duties have not extended far beyond the likes of judging the Miss Alaska pageant (which Ms Palin herself once entered). However, critics sayMr Palin has been quietly influential behind the scenes. He could find himself central to a continuing investigation into a possible hire-and-fire ethics scandal involving his wife.

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