How late change of heart came back to haunt Republicans

David Usborne,Minnesota
Tuesday 02 September 2008 18:41

When the Democrats were gathering in Denver to anoint Barack Obama and Joe Biden as their nominees last week, Sarah Palin was just one of many names on a long list of potential running mates for their Republican rival, John McCain, and seemingly a long way down that list.

He had been leaning heavily towards Senator Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, and Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania. But both men support the pro-choice argument on abortion. Two other possible running mates – the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the current Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty – appeared to present fewer problems, but Mr McCain was concerned that choosing either would be too predictable.

Private polling by the Republicans was showing that he needed to find a person who would shake up the race and inject some energy to his base of support.

The crunch apparently came only when aides made it clear in the 11th hour to the candidate that his preferred options of Mr Ridge and Mr Lieberman would not be viable. Advisers said selecting either would trigger a rebellion among conservatives.

With the pressure on to regain the media initiative Mr McCain decided to gamble and made a rushed decision to select Mrs Palin, the Governor of Alaska, as his running mate and curtail the normal vetting procedures.

This haste goes some way to explain why some secrets of her family life story are leaking out only now, including the bombshell revelation on day one of the Republican National Convention here that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is to have a baby.

It was then, only days before she was being presented to the world at a rally in Ohio, that Mrs Palin's name suddenly jumped off that list as the perfect, out-of-nowhere choice. She was flown secretly to New Mexico last Wednesday to meet top aides to Senator McCain at a private house. On Thursday, she had only her second private conversation ever with Mr McCain at his ranch house in Sedona. Within minutes of that meeting concluding, the Senator led her out on to the deck and offered her the job.

"They didn't seriously consider her until four or five days from the time she was picked, before she was asked, maybe the Thursday or Friday before," one Republican close to team McCain told The New York Times.

"This was really kind of rushed at the end, because John didn't get what he wanted."

When it came, the announcement that Mrs Palin was joining the ticket seemed to have exactly the desired impact. Because of her many socially conservative positions – on abortion, gun ownership and climate control, for instance – the right wing of the party went more or less potty with excitement. However, as the Palin train gathered speed this week, the sensation set in that it might leave the tracks.

Aides to Mr McCain continued yesterday to say that he knew about Bristol's pregnancy when he offered Mrs Palin the post. Meanwhile, the top lawyer involved in the vetting process, Arthur Culvahouse, emerged from behind his usual walls of discretion to insist that he had subjected Mrs Palin to all the usual rigours of vetting. She filled a 72-line questionnaire and he interviewed her for nearly three hours.

Ominously, however, Mr Culvahouse did not seem entirely confident when he was asked if everything there was to learn about Mrs Palin and her family was now out in public. "I think so. Yeah, I think so. Correct," was his less than rock-solid response.

In the past 72 hours, the stream of revelations has flowed fast and there is scant sign that it will dry up. The tit-bits have served to distract from the order of business as it was meant to unfold in St Paul, with a new focus on hurricane relief and the projection of Mr McCain as a man of action and compassion.

What we did not know last week includes a record of Mrs Palin's husband, Todd, being arrested in 1986 on drink-driving charges and, of course, Bristol and her pregnancy, which is five months along.

Early yesterday, astonished delegates were getting their first glimpse of the father, a young, burly looking ice hockey player who has gamely described himself a "fuckin' redneck".

Other new insights include reports of how Todd and Sarah Palin themselves first eloped in August 1988 before the delivery of her first child, Track, just eight months later. As an army of journalists began to descend on Anchorage and on Wasilla, where the Palins have their main home, we have learnt also how in 2002, when her second and last term as the town's mayor was ending, Mrs Palin decided to campaign against her own stepmother, Faye Palin, who wanted to succeed her. (Faye was defeated.) Nor did we know until this week that for two years in the 1990s, the Governor was a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, a deeply conservative group that at times argued for secession for Alaska.

Busloads of figures who are more or less prominent in Alaska, or who can claim at least to have had close contact with Mrs Palin in the past, were meanwhile stepping forward to reveal that none had at any time been approached by lawyers for Mr McCain for information about the Governor, once more reinforcing the impression that the vetting had been skimpy.

"It was hard to find anyone who had been contacted by McCain's campaign," the Anchorage Daily News said. When Gail Phillips, a former speaker of the Alaska state legislature, heard of the Palin pick, she reportedly said to her husband: "This can't be happening ... because his advance team didn't come to check her out." Or if they did, they were more discreet than seems possible to anyone.

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