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She's no good ol' boy

Meet Sarah Palin: governor, mother of five, hunter, reformer, creationist, runner-up to Miss Alaska . . .

August 30, 2008|Cathleen Decker and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

The country, most of it anyway, got its first glimpse Friday of Sarah Heath Palin, John McCain's selection as his running mate, and the reaction was nearly universal:

Who?

Palin is breathtakingly unlike any other vice presidential pick in American history -- a gun-toting, mooseburger-eating former Miss Wasilla, an Alaska governor whose parents nearly missed her national unveiling because they were out hunting caribou.

The first woman to grace a Republican ticket stepped onto the stage with McCain in Dayton, Ohio, surrounded by her husband and four of their five children, including a baby born in April. The tableau of everyday mom-ness, however, may have masked the ambition and grit that have marked Palin's meteoric rise in Alaska.

Two years ago, she knocked off the sitting Republican governor in the primary and a former Democratic governor in the general. Her relations with Alaska officialdom have not always been sunny, resuscitating a nickname given when, as a high schooler, she led her basketball team to the state championship: "Sarah Barracuda."

By her own telling, Palin's political rise has been improbable.

Born in Idaho, she moved as a baby to Alaska with her science teacher father and school secretary mother, part-time trappers who seemed to personify the quirky Alaska spirit. (Her father, Chuck, to a Vogue magazine reporter recently angling for an interview: "Come on over, unless you have a problem with small dead animals." The magazine reported that a thousand caribou antlers were piled near the driveway of their home.)

Palin was baptized as a Catholic but later began attending the Wasilla Assembly of God church. At age 12 she, her mother and sisters were re-baptized in nearby Beaver Lake. The former pastor of her new church would give the invocation at her inauguration.

As a child, sports gave a structure to her ambition, she told the Anchorage Daily News shortly before her election as governor.

"I know this sounds hokey, but basketball was a life-changing experience for me," she said. "It's all about setting a goal, about discipline, teamwork and then success."

Palin led her school basketball team to the state championship in 1982 and was a runner-up in the Miss Alaska contest two years later. (She reported with some consternation that the judges were too interested in the contestants' derrieres.) In 1988, she and her high school boyfriend, Todd Palin, eloped and began raising a family.

Throughout, her pursuits appeared to be typically Alaskan: She spent a summer working at the Alyeska Seafoods processing plant in Dutch Harbor, America's largest seafood port.

"She used to work for me," said Frank Kelty, who at the time was the plant manager. "She took butchered crab portions and arranged them in a basket for cooking."

She enjoyed hunting, she told Vogue, and felt no qualms about shooting caribou.

"That caribou has had a good life. It's been free out there on the tundra, not caged up on a farm with no place to go," she said.

While her husband fished and worked in the oil fields, she moved quickly from the PTA to the Wasilla City Council, in 1992. Four years later, she bumped off a three-term incumbent to become mayor of the town, near Anchorage.

During her tenure, the flashes of the future governor arose: not terribly communicative, running a little roughshod.

"Some of the things I'm doing, it's obvious I'm not running for Miss Congeniality," she said, citing a title she had won in the Miss Alaska contest. "I'm running the city."

It was not until her term-limited departure from that job that she burnished her reformist credentials, much cited by the McCain campaign Friday.

After being appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she filed an ethics complaint against a fellow panelist, who happened to be the state Republican Party chairman. That presaged her 2006 gubernatorial race, when she defeated Republican incumbent Frank Murkowski and another candidate in the primary, and former Democratic governor Tony Knowles in November.

As governor, she has struck populist positions. She laid off the chef in the governor's mansion -- no need for that, she said -- and often drives herself around town.

"She's got perfect political pitch," said Jake Metcalf, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. "She's just been able to get in with issues and get press on it, and she knows sort of what the public wants to hear and has been able to place her positions around those sort of issues that are important to people here, the values that are important to people here.

"I don't think you can underestimate her as a politician," he said.

Two years after taking office, Palin remains enormously popular, in large part because many of the state's other politicians have been embroiled in ethics scandals.

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