MINNEAPOLIS — John McCain's advisers predicted weeks ago that the presumptive Republican nominee would use his national convention week to try to recapture his image as a maverick reformer and shake up the presidential race. He did just that Friday with his surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate.
McCain's selection of the nationally untested Palin is the most unlikely choice of a running mate since George H.W. Bush tapped then-Sen. Dan Quayle in 1988, a move as risky as it was bold. The decision brings the senator from Arizona immediate dividends with his base and eventually, perhaps, with swing voters. But it comes at potentially significant cost to his effort to discredit Democratic nominee Barack Obama as unprepared for the presidency.
The choice of Palin, the first woman named to a Republican presidential ticket, adds another chapter to a campaign that, mostly on the Democratic side, has been about breaking down racial and gender barriers in America. McCain's hope is that, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) now on the sidelines, Palin can help close a sizable gap with Obama among female voters that threatens to block his path to the White House.
Picking Palin also helps McCain consolidate his party's conservative base, which has been at best lukewarm toward his candidacy. The governor's conservative credentials are not in doubt, whether on abortion or gun rights or gay rights. The announcement of her elevation to the Republican ticket brought an outpouring of enthusiasm from the right flank of the GOP and will assure a more energized convention next week in St. Paul, Minn.
But what tipped the balance toward Palin was that she gives McCain a partner with a record of challenging the establishment in her own party and in Anchorage, reinforcing the case that he would be more fearless and effective than Obama in taking on special interests in Washington.
"I have found the right partner to help me stand up to those who value their privileges over their responsibilities, who put power over principle, and put their interests before your needs," McCain said in introducing Palin on Friday. "I found someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies; someone who has fought against corruption and the failed policies of the past."
But in turning to Palin, who is halfway through her first term as governor and who previously served as mayor of the small town of Wasilla, outside Anchorage, McCain risks ceding the most effective argument he and fellow Republicans have made against Obama. For months, Republicans have attacked the senator from Illinois as not ready to be president. Now McCain has put someone who Democrats argue has even less experience one election and a heartbeat away from the presidency.
He also has gambled that the governor of a geographically large but sparsely populated state can make the transition to the national stage, with no opportunity for an off-Broadway tryout. Unlike some of the established politicians who were believed to be under consideration, Palin is a total newcomer to the national spotlight and thus vulnerable to making the kind of mistakes that would raise questions about McCain's judgment.
But Mark Salter, one of McCain's closest confidants, said Friday that the campaign will argue that Palin's experience actually exceeds Obama's, both as an executive and as a hard-charging reformer willing to take on not just special interests but her own party as well. "Obama has no such record," Salter said.
McCain's campaign has exuded confidence of late after a month in which it pounded Obama as an elitist and a lightweight celebrity. But the choice of Palin hints at the underlying anxiety within its inner circle that the fundamentals of this election year still favor Obama and the Democrats. McCain was looking for ways to counter the Democrats' argument that he is merely an extension of President Bush and concluded that he needed a game-changing decision, with all the risks that entailed.
He had safer and more conventional options, although those perhaps became less attractive as he watched the Democrats celebrate Obama's historic nomination in Denver.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was one of those alternatives, although the uproar over the many homes McCain owns perhaps made the wealthy businessman a problematic choice. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was another, a conservative with blue-collar roots. But the more Minnesota looks like an uphill climb for McCain, the less Pawlenty might have been able to do for the GOP ticket.
McCain's heart may have been with two supporters of abortion rights: former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a fellow Vietnam War veteran and an old McCain pal from their days in the House, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut who has been a regular traveling companion of McCain's on the campaign trail.
The choice of either, however, could have blown apart the Republican convention over the abortion issue. Lieberman, in particular, would have been a problematic pick. He and McCain agree on little beyond the Iraq war and foreign policy, but his selection would have reinforced the closeness between McCain and Bush.
For all the enthusiasm Palin's selection generated among conservative constituencies, many GOP strategists were privately bewildered by McCain's decision.
One Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid view, said in an e-mail, "I would rather be arguing with conservatives about abortion than with the Democrats about a lack of experience on our own ticket."
"She really destroys the 'not ready' mantra," another strategist noted.
But other Republicans believe Palin could help the ticket in the industrial states of the Midwest if she is seen as they believe she will be: a working mother of strong character and convictions, and a fresh voice from outside Washington calling for an end to business as usual.
Her Western conservatism, they said, could also provide the ticket an added boost in the Rocky Mountain states, which Democrats have targeted this year. Obama is competing hard in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Montana. The presence of an Alaskan and an Arizonan on the Republican ticket may be reassuring to undecided Western voters.
The harsh Democratic reaction to her underscored the stakes for Palin. For all her attractive attributes, she is so little known that the first side that succeeds in defining her nationally may win the battle. Democratic leaders and Obama spokesman Bill Burton attacked her as an inexperienced right-winger who should not be trusted with the second-highest office in the land.
Republicans believe the fierceness of the Democratic attacks could backfire.
Obama, however, declined to join such attacks and even distanced himself from his campaign's rhetoric. Clinton offered congratulations to Palin and only mild criticism.
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, described Palin as a politician "with a compelling story" who is likely to be an effective campaigner. But, he said, she will be campaigning on McCain's agenda, which he argued is a continuation of Bush's. "Our view is that Obama's and McCain's agendas are on the ballot," he said.
That is always the case in presidential campaigns. In the end, vice presidential candidates generally make little difference. But Friday's uproar over Palin — positive and negative — says this is one pick that, at least in the short term, might make a difference.