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The Remaking of a Candidate

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/palin5.jpgGov. Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention (WDCpix)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Since Gov. Sarah Palin became the Republican vice presidential candidate, she’s been shaped to fit a new image.

From debate boot camp at Sen. John McCain’s Arizona ranch to a high-end makeover costing $150,000, the Palin on the national campaign trail is not the politician that voters here remember. The governor of Alaska seems transformed after a team of seasoned advisers helped craft a new political persona for her.

Standing on stage in red designer heels, her tone has sharpened and her partisan rhetoric has heightened.

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Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In Alaska, Palin supporters and critics alike have said the woman they see stumping in swing states and being interviewed on national TV is not the hockey mom-turned politician they once knew.

In talking with voters around Alaska, from Anchorage shopkeepers to government employees, as well as lawmakers and political insiders over the last three weeks, it’s clear that Palin has been re-branded, both in message and style, for the national arena. Critics and supporters agree that they see a change.

Recent news coverage of Palin demonstrates that she didn’t reinvent herself, but that members of the McCain campaign shaped her. Palin was heavily coached in preparation for the vice presidential debate with Sen. Joe Biden. She was kept from the press for weeks before granting any interviews. Her first appearance with Katie Couric was marked by a series of canned, though often jumbled, talking points. Even her new sleek, pulled-together look was taken care of by McCain adviser Jeff Larson. Larson is also in charge of the campaign’s robocalls.

Over the next two weeks, it appears that Palin will be surrounded by more, not fewer, McCain staffers, according to an email from a campaign spokeswoman Caroline Gransee. Gransee noted that the Alaska governor’s campaign plane may start accommodating fewer members of the press to make room for more staff.

This thick insulation of strategists around Palin is something new for her.

Palin rose to power in Alaska with support from a small paid staff and an army of volunteers, but without the help of a robust strategy team. She relied on her own judgment and that of her closest adviser: Todd Palin.

Interviews with people close to the governor, political observers and long-time Alaska politicos found that Palin was never surrounded by an entourage of advisers and strategists. Instead, Palin relied on her own instincts and leaned on her husband for an outside perspective.

A former top political aide to Palin, who requested anonymity, said in an interview that the governor has an innate political sense and turns to her husband for advice. The adviser now works in the private sector, but says he is still a friend of the Palins.

“The two Alaskans that advise Sarah Palin are Sarah and Todd Palin,” the aide said in an conversation. “Her husband is her No. 1 adviser.”

The former aide also said that this is not so uncommon for politicians new to the political arena in Alaska, noting the absence of long-time political families or major think tanks.

Others involved in Alaska politics disagree.

Longtime GOP strategist Art Hackney has served as an adviser to both Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, the state’s lone House member. Stevens is on trial on charges of failing to disclose gifts worth $250,000 from the oil services firm, Veco Corp. The jury is currently deliberating. Young is under federal investigation for his ties to the same company, though he has not been charged with a crime.

Hackney, a Republican, is not a Palin supporter as either a state or national candidate. “Most of us [in Alaska politics] just scratch our heads as to who she gets her advice from,” Hackney said. “With Palin, it’s Todd Palin and some of her friends … that none of the rest of us would know.”

Palin hired several of her old friends from Wasilla to join her administration. She put one family friend, Debbie Richter, who attended college for one year, in charge of the state’s $40-billion oil and gas dividend fund program. A lawyer from the Wasilla area, Talis J. Colberg, serves as her attorney general.

One former aide, John Bitney, went to high school with Palin. He was fired abruptly after he began dating Richter, who had recently divorced her husband, a longtime friend of Todd Palin’s.

Bitney now serves as chief of staff to the state Senate president. In an email message, Bitney said he is not familiar with who Palin keeps in contact with from the campaign trail.

Palin ran as an insurgent candidate in 2006, just as the state was enveloped by a wide-ranging political scandal involving a federal probe into the dealings between lawmakers and the oil services firm, Veco Corp. A few weeks before the election, the FBI raided 12 legislative offices, including that of Stevens’ son, Ben Stevens, the president of the Alaska Senate at the time.

It’s not surprising that Palin would decide not to align herself with old-guard political advisers, though Hackney said she did approach him once about the possibility of working together. He said he turned her down because he did not believe she had enough experience to serve as governor of Alaska.

“Normally someone who rises to this kind of political career would have people around them with expertise who can advise them,” he said. “There isn’t such a defined group around her. Basically, the Palins shoot from the hip.”

Todd Palin’s role in the governor’s administration has become increasingly apparent.

According to a report released after an investigation into whether Sarah Palin abused her power in pressuring her commissioner of public safety to fire her former brother-in-law, Todd was present during official meetings, made requests of members of Palin’s administration and was copied on emails about state business.

“I have heard criticism that I am too involved with my wife’s administration,” Palin wrote in a statement he submitted as part of the investigation. “My wife and I are very close. We are each other’s best friend. I have helped her at every stage in her career the best I can, and she has helped me.”

Todd Palin is the only Alaskan traveling with Palin as part of her national campaign.

So in this stage of her career, it looks like he is still in his role as chief adviser.

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