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The Top Story: Seriously … Sarah Palin?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

She has executive experience, but let’s put Sarah Palin’s Alaska in perspective. It has a population of 670,000 and a state budget of $6.6 billion. Which, essentially, makes it Fairfax County (population 1 million, operating budget of $3.3 billion), only colder.

So maybe we can dispense with the idea that it has been her run at the top of Alaska government that has her on the Republican Party national ticket. It’s about her appeal to social conservatives.

“This is the strongest pro-life team with the strongest pro-life platform in the history of the Republican Party,” said Ken Blackwell, chairman of the Washington, D.C.,-based Coalition for a Conservative Majority, and the former Ohio secretary of state whose name you might remember from the ’04 White House election cycle. “Sarah Palin is an exciting pick that has convinced me to support McCain after months of indecision,” said Waynesboro evangelical conservative voter Bill Dolack of Palin, who is well-regarded in the pro-life and pro-gun set. Dolack was among a sizable group of social conservatives who seemed to be teetering on the edge of backing the John McCain candidacy or bolting for a third party or just staying at home on Election Day. Palin, 44, who was elected governor in Alaska in 2006 after serving two terms on the city council in Wasilla (population 9,200) and an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 2002. She made her name politically in Alaska in 2003 and 2004 during a term as the appointed commissioner of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, during which she battled fellow Republicans on ethics and corruption issues that eventually served as the basis for her ’06 statewide-office run.

But Palin has not escaped a turn at ethics-related controversy herself. She is currently under investigation by the Alaska state legislature on charges that she improperly used her office to get her brother-in-law fired. Palin allegedly fired the state public-safety commissioner after the commissioner resisted pressure to fire a state trooper involved in a contentious divorce proceeding with her sister. The Alaska legislature has requested a report from a former district attorney hired to lead the investigation by Oct. 31 – four days before the ’08 presidential election.

That would seem to cancel out the feel-good part to the Palin story as a government reformer in the mold of the once-maverick McCain. Or maybe not, based on what we’re hearing from Republicans about the Palin selection. “The selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate underscores the point that this fall Republicans will run as the true party of reform,” Virginia Republican Congresswoman Thelma Drake said. “She is a Washington outsider, a maverick, who will put reform and results first for working families like mine. She has spent her time in office shaking up government in Alaska. Her experience in shaking up the status quo is exactly what is needed in Washington. I will actively campaign for John McCain and Sarah Palin and will proudly vote for them in November,” said Christy Swanson, a self-identified Richmond Democrat and vice chair of the Citizen for McCain group that formed this week. “Gov. Palin has a proven record as a reformer who gets results and will feel at home within a McCain administration,” former Virginia attorney general and McCain Virginia co-chair Jerry Kilgore said. “Beyond excited. Just absolutely thrilled. She’s a wonderful woman, strong record of reform, thinking outside the box. Definitely an innovator, definitely a maverick like John McCain. It was definitely a pick of change. “I think it says a lot about John McCain and the changes that will be coming to Washington, D.C., with this presidency,” McCain Virginia co-chair and Staunton state legislator Chris Saxman said.

I can’t get over the first-term Alaska governor thing, personally. The McCain campaign has had some success in the polls, until this week, anyway, selling voters on the idea that the ’08 election should be a referendum on whether Barack Obama is qualified to lead, hinting that his age (47) and relative inexperience in Washington (he’s a first-term United States senator) make him unfit to be commander-in-chief. How a 44-year-old former small-town mayor with a year and change running a government roughly the size of Fairfax County being a heartbeat away from the presidency fits with that argument is something that is beyond me right now.

“Not only is she inexperienced, but she has no real standing, which is one of the key things that Republicans have been talking about over the course of this campaign. They’re saying, He’s not qualified to be president. Well, where is she coming from on that point?” Bridgewater College political-science professor David McQuilkin agreed.

“You have to remember that John McCain is going to be president. That’s the important factor. The vice president isn’t the president. It’s a different pick,” Saxman told me in a conversation this morning. “She’s the governor of a state that has actually done things and accomplished things, whereas the record with Barack Obama is quite the opposite. He’s been a state senator and a United States senator, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of accomplishments to go along with that,” Saxman said.

I’ll give Saxman credit for trying to slog through that one. It won’t be the last time that the McCain team will have to do that, of course.