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Palin’s Personality Trumped Experience in Governor Race


Gov. Sarah Palin in Columbus, Ohio (Associated Press)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — When Sarah Palin ran for Alaska governor in 2006 her opponents underestimated her.

They attacked Palin’s small-town persona. Former Gov. Frank Murkowski called her an “untested” rural mayor and Andrew Halcro claimed Palin’s folksy debate style amounted to “gibberish.”

They missed the point.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

What they saw as a parochial streak was actually a key to Palin’s coveted political skill: an ability to connect with voters in a meaningful way, regardless of substance. In 2006, Palin offered few details on how she would run the state. Instead, she presented herself as a change candidate and won over voters with her disarming personality. Alaskans embraced her as an honest politician at a time when the state was ripe with corruption.

Throughout her political career, Palin has proven that she can reach voters without touching on specifics of policy. Even instances where she had no understanding of the issue at hand, she won over crowds. Her personality comes across on stage, on TV and one-on-one. Voters in the state describe her as authentic and say she relates to them. In a series of interviews over the last month, many Alaskans say Palin captivated voters in a way no other politician ever had.

This almost Reaganesque appeal factored into Sen. John McCain’s decision to tap Palin as his vice presidential running-mate. He needed her to reach the partyu’s conservative base and energize those who might otherwise have stayed home. When Palin was introduced to the national audience at the Republican convention, she was an overnight sensation. Tonight, during her match up with Sen. Joseph Biden at the vice presidential debate in St. Louis, Palin has a shot at buoying the GOP ticket again.

Since a series of clips revealed Palin floundering during an extended interview with CBS’ Katie Couric in the last week, Republican strategists and observers are saying Palin needs to be allowed to have more room so voters hear her voice. Some of Palin’s worst moments with Couric seemed to be when she tried to recall talking points. If voters get to know the Alaska governor, some seasoned political hands say, she has a shot at success.

In her hometown of Wasilla, Palin won the office of mayor on a platform of change in 1996. In that race, Palin carried the support of fellow evangelical Christians by injecting religion and social issues, mainly abortion, into the campaign, similar to her current roll in the presidential campaign. But in 2006, Palin aggressively retooled her run for governor, rarely speaking about her anti-abortion views. She proved that her personality can win over the middle-of-the-road voter, not just those who share her ideology on social issues — a testament to her political skill.

Part of Palin’s appeal in Alaska was her sincere-sounding approach with voters when much of the old guard was looking untrustworthy. She developed this reputation as the press covered her favorably in the years leading up to her run for governor.

Gov. Murkowski had appointed Palin to chair a state energy commission in 2002, after she lost a bid for lieutenant governor. A year into her term, Palin discovered that a commission member, state GOP chair Randy Ruedrich, had been working on campaign fund-raising while on the clock. Ruedrich resigned after Palin took her complaints up the ladder. Dissatisfied with how her complaints were handled, Palin also resigned, walking away from a $125,000 a year job.

Palin went on to co-sponsor an ethics complaint with a Democratic state legislator, Eric Croft, against the state attorney general, Gregg Renkes, who had seemingly known about Ruedrich’s behavior but did nothing. Renkes eventually stepped down as attorney general.

The scandals made statewide news. Palin was painted as a hero — and Alaskans took notice.

“I recognized that this was somebody, that if she decided to run for office, I’d help her,” said Anita Halterman, of Eagle River, Alaska. “ I would back her and do whatever I needed to do.”

When Palin launched her gubernatorial campaign in 2005, Halterman, now a civil servant at the Alaska Dept. of Health and Human Services, began volunteering full-time.

“I never embraced a politician or gave a campaign contribution until I met [Palin],” Halterman said. “I dug deep for her, emotionally and financially. I rolled up my sleeves and I wanted to see some change — and I did.”

Halterman was drawn to Palin’s persona, though it took Palin longer to reach the broader electorate.

Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore noted that in a poll taken about a month before the July 2006 primary, Palin was down a few points when matched against the Democratic front-runner, Tony Knowles. Her victory came at the last-minute.

“People got to know her,” Moore said. “It’s that populist appeal that some people can create in a very natural, unforced way.”

Moore noted that on the national stage, Alaskans seem to be watching a different Palin. While she was largely in charge of her own presentation style in her home state, she appears over-coached and less herself on national TV.

“If she was given the freedom to react in the ways that were more natural to her,” Moore said, “none of the mistakes that have happened at this point would have happened to this degree. think she would have been great, but I don’t think she had the latitude and the freedom to do that.”

Recently, observers of the national campaign have called it a mistake on McCain’s part to keep her away from the media. The campaign has now said Palin will start making more appearances, particularly on talk radio.

“They’d be a lot wiser to let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin,” said Mitt Romney to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “Look, she wasn’t selected by John McCain because she’s an expert in foreign policy. John McCain’s the expert in foreign policy … She’s a person who identifies with people with homes across America.”

During the race for governor, The Anchorage Daily News covered an event where Palin’s ability to relate trumped her inability to get into the details. In addressing an association of chiropractors, Palin “had little specific to offer on the group’s complicated legal and Medicaid questions.” But she won the crowd over when she brought up how her husband Todd Palin competed in intense, 2,000 mile snowmachine races, that, without the help of his chiropractor, would have left him unable to stand. In response, the Sheraton Hotel ballroom “erupted in applause.”

During the race for governor, Palin participated in about two-dozen debates. A review of a handful of them by The New York Times found a candidate who “held her own,” though she spoke in generalities and rarely delved into a deep argument. Palin often ended her answers abruptly, without using all her allotted time. Her train of thought had gaps, her sentences were often not complete. She tended to repeat the phrase “here in Alaska.”

Former aides said Palin was [difficult to prep ](Palin was no pushover, though. Some of her former opponents and aides say that she can jab with a smile. )for the debates, particularly when it came to going over policy nuance. Still, she appeared calm and confident and came across as likable in many appearances, even taking jabs at her opponents with a charming smile as the campaign wore on.

Palin has been practicing for tonight’s debate at McCain’s home in Sedona, Ariz. If her prep work focused on memorizing answers that are not her own, she’s in trouble. Palin needs to be relaxed enough to answer in a way that lets people know who she actually is.

Palin’s real strength in Alaska was meeting with voters. She marched in parades, shook hands with locals after town hall events and debates and fielded phone calls from voters in her Anchorage campaign headquarters.

“When people sit in a room and talk to her, they’re energized,” Halterman said.

In the heat of the campaign, Palin got an additional boost when, two months before election day, federal agents raided the offices of a half-dozen state legislators in a broad investigation into the dealings between state lawmakers and the oil field servicing company, Veco Corp.

Palin stood in direct contrast to the shocking images of FBI agents carrying boxes of evidence out of the legislative offices. Though all of the lawmakers under investigation were Republicans, her Democratic opponent, Knowles, was running on a platform of experience. Even the sharpest criticism of Palin, that as a two-term mayor of the small town of Wasilla she was not qualified to serve as governor, actually worked to her advantage.

“Throughout her political career, Sarah Palin has benefited from establishing and exploiting contrasts,” Michael Carey, former editorial page editor of The Anchorage Daily News wrote in a recent column. “The contrast between Palin the women-of-integrity and dishonest Republican bosses. The contrast between the fresh new Palin and old clumsy incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. The contrast between women-of-the-people Palin and screw-the-people oil companies. Even the contrast between young, vital Sarah Palin and aging, stiff John McCain — which perversely enough has helped McCain in the polls.”

Compared to her primary competitor, Murkowski, whom voters had largely soured on, Palin looked fresh and forthright. Murkowski was criticized for running an arrogant administration unwilling to speak with the press. He was also accused of dealing with oil companies behind closed doors, a serious political problem in a state with an extraction economy.

The oil industry accounts for one-third of Alaska’s economy and nearly 80 to 90 percent of the state’s revenue. Voters support oil companies paying their fair share, but are hesitant to over-tax a critical employer.

Palin retooled the image she created in Wasilla of a socially conservative, staunchly anti-abortion candidate to accommodate this statewide issue. In the rural town of Wasilla, Palin’s pro-life views played well with voters. Across the state, though, nearly 70 percent of voters live in urban areas where social views tend to be less extreme. Palin was able to present herself as a pro-energy candidate, which appealed to average Alaskans.

According to an archive of Palin’s now-defunct campaign website, energy was the only policy focus of Palin’s television and radio ads, besides ethics reform. Palin campaigned for the construction of a natural gas pipeline that would connect to the lower 48 states through Canada. She also ran a radio ad pushing for a “revenue sharing” program that would distribute state oil revenues to local municipalities.

In office, Palin kept both promises, pushing through a plan to spend $500 million in public money to subsidize the natural gas pipeline project. She also raised taxes on oil companies, allowing state spending to soar.

“Palin came along and she could represent herself as a reformer, a whistleblower and as someone who would go to the [oil] industry as much more an equal player and get a better deal,” said Stephen Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “And it turned out she was able to do that.”

At a time when the state was garnering national attention for its deep corruption, Palin represented the opposite of what had earned voters disgust in Alaska.

“She has rekindled hope that there’s something to be salvaged,” Halterman said. “I’ve seen it in our state.”

The question tonight is, will she let voters get to know her — in contrast to the national Palin who Alaskans don’t recognize.

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