DAYTON, OHIO — John McCain's surprise choice of first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate recasts the fall campaign with a candidate who is virtually unknown on the national stage but makes history as the first woman on a Republican ticket.
Palin, a 44-year-old mother of five, has solid conservative credentials that drew immediate praise from GOP leaders, but she has only been Alaska's chief executive for about 22 months and has no foreign policy experience, facts that Democrats were quick to criticize.
Introducing her Friday at a rally here, McCain hailed Palin as a reform-minded trailblazer with a "fighting spirit and deep compassion" who would help him "shake up Washington."
The Arizona senator's campaign hopes Palin will help draw women and disaffected supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York senator who won 18 million votes in her bid to defeat Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.
Palin made a direct appeal for those voters as she took the stage at an indoor arena before about 15,000 supporters, one of the largest McCain rallies this year.
Clinton "left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America," she said. "It turns out that the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all."
Palin admitted that she was surprised when McCain offered her the job days before the Republican National Convention opens Monday in St. Paul, Minn., to nominate the party's standard-bearers. "Some of life's greatest opportunities come unexpectedly, and that is certainly the case today," she said.
In her rollout speech, Palin did not take on the traditional role of a vice presidential candidate, that of a political attack dog. Neither she nor McCain directly criticized or even mentioned Obama and Joe Biden, the Democratic ticket.
Tapping the relatively unknown governor of a state few Americans have visited could bolster McCain's claim to be an independent-minded maverick who would change politics in Washington. But Palin's place on the GOP ticket also undermines McCain's chief argument against Obama, that the first-term Illinois senator is neither prepared nor experienced enough to assume the office of commander in chief.
In recent weeks, McCain has repeatedly said that his first priority was to choose a running mate fully qualified to step in as president. McCain celebrated his 72nd birthday Friday, and an Obama spokesman questioned McCain's judgment for seeking to put Palin "a heartbeat away from the presidency."
Before being elected governor, Palin was mayor of Wasilla, a fast-growing town of about 7,000 residents north of Anchorage.
McCain first met Palin in February at a National Governors Assn. meeting in Washington, according to Jill Hazelbaker, a campaign spokeswoman.
Another advisor, Charlie Black, said McCain and Palin spent about 90 minutes in a meeting with about six other governors and then spoke privately for about 15 minutes that night at a reception.
Black, who accompanied McCain to the meeting, said the Arizona senator quizzed her about energy issues in Alaska, including a natural gas pipeline that is being built there. McCain, he said, admired her record "of taking on the old boy network" in both parties.
After the meeting, Hazelbaker said, "John McCain followed her career and admired her tenacity and her many accomplishments."
As a result, McCain added Palin's name to his list when he first began considering potential running mates, the aides said.
Finally, working from his home in Phoenix, McCain arranged to speak with Palin by telephone Sunday while she was at the Alaska State Fair.
The upshot: Palin and a longtime aide, Kris Perry, flew to Flagstaff, Ariz., on Wednesday and met in secret with two of McCain's closest aides, Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter. To avoid reporters, they huddled at the home of Bob Delgado, who runs the Phoenix-based beer distributorship owned by McCain's wife, Cindy.
On Thursday morning, McCain and his wife invited Palin and her aide to their 15-acre compound near Sedona. McCain was so impressed, Hazelbaker said, that he formally invited the Alaskan to join his ticket at 11 a.m., when they were on the deck of the McCain family home.
To maintain the secrecy McCain demanded, Palin and Perry, plus Schmidt and Salter, flew Thursday night to an inn and conference center in Middletown, Ohio, not far from Dayton, where they checked in under false names as members of the Upton family.
"While there, Gov. Palin's children, who had been told they were going to Ohio to celebrate their parents' wedding anniversary, were told for the first time that their mother" would be McCain's running mate, Hazelbaker said.
Palin's parents, according to media reports, were out hunting caribou when they received a message to head home to await the news.
With speculation chiefly focusing on other candidates, suspense built steadily in recent days. News of Palin's selection held until about three hours before the noon rally.