Palin was elected governor in 2006 in what was, for Alaska, an epochal election. The previous August, a bribery scandal in the Republican-dominated state legislature (which has since ensnared Sen. Ted Stevens, who was indicted on related charges in July) had dealt a serious blow to the stateâ€™s Republican establishment, which had more or less run Alaskan politics since theâ€™60s. Palin was uniquely positioned to take advantage of that--she had been a persona non grata with many party leaders since two years earlier, when she blew the whistle on the state Republican Party chairman for a conflict of interest when both of them were on the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (Ben Stevens, Ted Stevensâ€™s son and the former president of the state Senate, once personally called Palin to tell her she was a â€œPollyannaâ€ for her concerns over his ethics). Running as an insurgent in the Republican primary, she walloped Frank Murkowski, the incumbent and previously a two-decade veteran of the U.S. Senate (Murkowksi has so far remained clear of the corruption probe--Alaskans mostly just didnâ€™t like the guy). Her election is credited by both reformist Republicans and Democrats in Alaska with opening the door for new political blood in a state that badly needs it. Itâ€™s unlikely that either Ted Stevens or Rep. Don Young, both of whom are fighting for their lives in this yearâ€™s elections after holding office for the majority of Alaskaâ€™s statehood, would be doing so if Palin hadnâ€™t won.
In short, Palin can legitimately claim the maverick reformist credentials that McCain himself has long since lost. Her pro-life record helps McCain with the Republican base, her gender might lure away a few Hillary bitter-enders, and her youth goes a little way towards compensating one of McCainâ€™s major weaknesses. Palin also manages the Obama-esque feat of commanding a great deal of popularity among people who donâ€™t really know what she stands for--Dave Dittman, an Anchorage-based pollster, who has done a lot of polling and thinking about this, pointed out to me several months ago that Palin was maintaining a 85 percent approval rating among Alaskan voters even when her policies (particularly a natural gas line deal that has been a signature ambition of her administration) polled far short of that, and even when voters had trouble accurately describing her political leanings. She also pretty much guarantees a McCain victory in her home state, where Obama has been polling astoundingly well (Alaska hasnâ€™t gone for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson).