IF NOTHING else, John McCain's choice of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate instantly changed the subject from Barack Obama's dramatic acceptance speech in Denver the night before. With one stroke, McCain defied convention, galvanized Republicans, and gave Hillary Clinton's legions another reason to consider crossing party lines in November: It is McCain, not Obama, who will be sharing a national ticket with a gutsy and accomplished woman. The Palin pick is a vivid illustration of why the label "maverick" is so often applied to McCain.
Those who have observed the 44-year-old governor up close speak highly of her political skills. She took on her own party's ethically challenged leadership and beat it handily, and has gone on to earn high approval ratings for her own performance in office. Unlike Alaska's better-known politicians, she is a spending hawk and a committed porkbuster; notably, she pulled the plug on her state's notorious $400 million "bridge to nowhere."
Palin is about as far from a "Washington insider" as anyone in politics can be - a striking contrast to Obama's running mate, six-term Senator Joseph Biden. Her family story is thoroughly middle-class and charming: The former beauty contestant and self-described "hockey mom" is married to her high school sweetheart, with whom she has five kids, ranging from the 18-year-old in the Army to the infant with Down syndrome. And it certainly upends familiar stereotypes to have a national GOP candidate whose spouse belongs to the Steelworkers Union and races snowmobiles for fun.
Of course McCain is taking a big gamble. Palin has been governor for less than two years, has no foreign-policy or national-security experience, and has never been through the gauntlet of a national campaign. Whether she can hold her own on the stump and under the withering glare of the national media, we will all know soon enough. Many voters will understandably read McCain's choice as cynical, in part because he has made such an issue of Obama's limited record. But surely Palin's lack of expertise on defense and international issues makes Obama's inexperience all the more conspicuous. The Democratic nominee is as green and untested as she is. There is one key difference between them, however: She's not running for president.
Which is why it seems to me that McCain's choice of Palin, like Obama's of Biden, probably changes very little about this campaign. For all the attention they get from the pundits and politicos, VP picks rarely make a difference in the essential nature of any presidential contest.
Think of 1988, when George H.W. Bush's selection of Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana triggered a frenzy of media mockery, while Michael Dukakis's pick of Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas was widely applauded. When the two running mates debated, Bentsen elegantly dispatched Quayle with a put-down - "You're no Jack Kennedy" - that became an instant classic. Yet when the votes were tallied in November, Bush-Quayle had won in a 40-state landslide.
In 1996, Republican Bob Dole picked New York congressman Jack Kemp, the GOP's sunny supply-side tax warrior, "because he would give a big shot of energy to the ticket," campaign manager Scott Reed recently recalled. But Kemp's enthusiasm couldn't change the fact that Dole had no chance against Bill Clinton.
Four years ago, John Kerry drew cheers when he tapped his primary-campaign rival, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina. "Democrats have what many consider their dream team," exulted CBS. On the cover of Newsweek, the two Democrats were hailed as "The Sunshine Boys." Yet the South went solidly for George W. Bush; Edwards couldn't even carry his home state.
For all the ink and bandwidth devoted to the Veepstakes, it is almost always the candidate at the top who seals the deal with the electorate - or doesn't. Palin and Biden will enliven the nine weeks remaining until Nov. 4, but barring some extraordinary development or colossal blunder, they won't change the outcome. The race isn't about them. It is about Obama and McCain. It is between the uplifting but insubstantial charisma of the former and the battle-tested experience and judgment of the latter.
In Denver, the Democrats strove to cast McCain as little more than a Bush clone. "We love this country too much to let the next four years look just like the last eight," Obama declared Thursday night.
But most voters know that McCain is his own man. The real mystery, as the Republicans gathering in Minnesota will be emphasizing all week, is who Obama is, and whether he's fit to be commander in chief. That is what this year's election will turn on. Palin and Biden may make things more interesting, but don't confuse them with the main event.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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