McCain’s first encounter with Sarah Palin came at a Washington meeting of the National Governors Association in February, according to a campaign-provided reconstruction of how the little-known Alaska governor was thrust into the national spotlight. The two discussed the position by phone on Sunday before McCain invited Palin and her husband to Arizona to formally make the offer. McCain, joined by his wife, Cindy, did just that Thursday morning at their home near Sedona, Ariz.
By picking somebody he and most Americans barely know — an out-of-the-blue decision that sent shock waves of disbelief through the political world and still has jaws agape — McCain has taken a considerable gamble.
The choice is historic, yes. Palin becomes only the second woman to run on a major-party ticket and the first Republican woman to do so. But it’s also fraught with risks.
Palin, 44, is less than two years removed from being mayor of Wasilla, Alaska; has no military or foreign policy experience in a time of grave international threat; and has never even appeared a single time on “Meet the Press,” let alone been scrutinized by a voracious and around-the-clock modern media beast.
The coverage will be intense, relentless and, should she falter, harsh.
Yet Palin, a self-styled “hockey mom,” seems to represent compromise and promise as much as she does danger and risk.
Torn between selecting a transformational running mate and a conventional No. 2, McCain, as he has done so many times in his political career, went his own way.
McCain and his good friend and colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), were tempted by the third member of their tight-knit trio, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). Picking a Democrat-turned-independent, the idea went, would underscore McCain's anti-establishment credentials in a year in which voters are fed up with Washington.
But as a former Democrat who supports abortion rights and holds a host of other conventional liberal positions, Lieberman would have spurred a revolt among conservatives already wary of the maverick-inclined McCain.
McCain also could have tapped a safer choice — Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was widely thought to be the chosen one in the final day of speculation — and not risked much of anything.
Instead, he gambled on an outsider sure to draw waves of skepticism but one whom, politically, his own party base could live with.
Palin, say some GOP strategists, brings considerable strengths to the ticket: She’s from just about as far from the Beltway as possible, ran and won as a reformer in a state that was aching for one, is acceptable to the party’s right wing, and has a fascinating yet familiar life story of success and achievement that embodies the American Dream.
“It reinforces in real time McCain’s greatest brand: reform,” said Mary Matalin. “And it epitomizes ‘shares your values.’”
“I feel a tingle up my spine,” she crowed, praising the McCain campaign’s secret-keeping and boffo execution here today.
And then there are Palin’s two most visible traits.
“We’re a party that desperately needs women and desperately needs young people,” noted Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican consultant. And the 44-year-old Palin brings both of those qualities.
But McCain’s risk is just that — and Palin’s downside is considerable. Already, some Republicans are fretting that the GOP nominee might have made a colossal mistake by picking a running mate who is a complete unknown and who has not a minute of experience under the unforgiving glare of the national and intenational spotlight.
In a conference call with allies of the campaign, one participant raised questions about her unknown foreign policy views, according to a GOP source on the call.
McCain adviser Matt McDonald sought to allay these concerns by citing her experience dealing with international trade issues and even her travel overseas and her eldest son’s Army service.
“But the bottom line is, she doesn’t have a whole lot of experience. She just doesn’t,” said the source on the call, who said he had mixed feelings about the selection.
And, this person noted, beyond her own inexperience, Palin's youth may ultimately pose as much peril as opportunity.
“I wonder if her youth will accentuate [McCain’s] age over time in a bad way,” this source said.
Another Republican, echoing the private thoughts of some strategists in the party, was less restrained, suggesting the Palin pick damaged one of McCain’s most valued attributes and wouldn’t help him beyond the party base.
“It hurts the experience edge, and the hard abortion stuff scares moderate swing voters,” said this GOP insider. “It will appeal to some Bubbas, but that’s not enough.”
It’s the first of these issues that Obama’s campaign and Democrats are seizing upon.
In what appears to be a coordinated attack, many top Democrats have savaged McCain for picking somebody who, less than two years ago, was a small-town mayor, to be next in line for the most powerful job in the world.
“Is this really who the Republican Party wants to be one heartbeat away from the presidency?” Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) asked, making sure to note that McCain turned 72 on Friday.
Indeed, Palin has emboldened Democrats to more frontally go after the longtime Arizona senator for his age, an issue on the minds of many voters with regard to McCain, according to polls.
"After his attacks on Obama's readiness for the job, it'll be amusing to hear a 72-year-old with a history of health problems justify this decision,” said Jim Jordan, a veteran Democratic strategist. "She's a talent, but that's the end of the experience message from John McCain."
McCain plainly wanted a pick that dazzled and would be sure to shake up the race. But his out-of-the-box selection seems to dance on the razor’s edge, with disaster a distinct possibility.
Even Rollins, who praised the move, acknowledged it could be a catastrophe.
“The risk is that she just craters somewhere out there on the way,” he said. “She’s just never been in this kind of environment before.”
Another Republican cited a line from “This Is Spinal Tap”: “There is a fine line between clever and stupid.”
In the next 67 days, we’ll learn which side the Palin selection falls on.