John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his Republican running mate is likely to push social issues back into prominence in a presidential campaign dominated so far by the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At first blush, picking the 44-year-old Palin appeared to be a fairly straightforward bid for disaffected Democratic women -- those who remain unreconciled to Barack Obama's nomination and who were offended by his subsequent refusal to put Hillary Clinton on the ticket. In fact, during her brief remarks in Ohio on Friday, Palin cited Clinton and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro as her political antecedents. Palin even echoed Clinton's line about 18 million cracks made in the highest, hardest glass ceiling -- and then vowed to shatter it.
It's possible some Clinton supporters remain unmoved by her wholehearted appeals for party unity in Denver this week. Still, it seems unlikely that many will cross the aisle to McCain -- no matter who his running mate is. Clinton's admirers feel about her as they do not just because she's a woman but because she's a particular sort of woman.
Palin is emphatically not that sort of woman. She is, however, the sort who fires the enthusiasm of the religious right and the GOP's socially conservative wing. That's where her presence on the ticket really helps McCain, whose popularity in that crucial part of the Republican base never has been better than tepid. As a correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network reported Friday, evangelical leaders literally hugged each other "in joy" when Palin's name was announced.
It's easy to see why. Palin is an evangelical Christian, a creationist and opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. (Alaska was one of the first states to amend its constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, and Palin supported that 1998 measure.) She also happens to be a lifetime member of the National Rifle Assn. and a hunting and fishing enthusiast whose favorite dish is moose stew.
Palin has been governor for two years in a state where politics are hard fought but small scale. There's no telling how she'll perform on a national stage or how she'll deal with the size and appetite of the press corps. But if she can find her footing, she could be a formidable advocate for the religious right's social agenda, particularly when it comes to abortion.
The Democrats left Denver with an abortion problem that's been given far too little attention in the mainstream media. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's inexplicably incoherent attempt to reconcile her Catholicism and pro-choice voting record on "Meet the Press" last Sunday has provoked a torrent of condemnation from bishops across the country. Some of those denunciations probably will resonate with the socially conservative, white ethnic Catholics who are disproportionately concentrated in large swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
If she's adroit enough to do so, Palin can raise the abortion question with an authority no candidate for national office has ever had. In mid-April, she gave birth to her fifth child, a son she chose to deliver knowing that he would be born with Down syndrome. She told the Associated Press that she and her husband had discussed the prenatal diagnosis but that "we've both been very vocal about being pro-life. We understand that every innocent life has wonderful potential." In other words, the antiabortion camp finally has a candidate who not only talks the talk but walks the walk.
She also brings an interesting tinge of Alaska's blue-collar, frontier libertarianism to the social agenda debate. Although she supports the teaching of creationism in public schools, Palin thinks it should be presented alongside, rather than instead of, evolution. "Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both," she said during her gubernatorial campaign. "I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. ... Don't be afraid of information, and let kids debate both sides." Similarly, although she opposes same-sex marriage, as governor she vetoed a bill that would have denied benefits to the partners of gay state employees.
All of this gives Palin the potential to be an unexpected spokeswoman for the religious right's social agenda, if someone so inexperienced can surmount the rigors of a national campaign to make herself heard.
At some point, too, she'll have to face the formidable Joe Biden -- veteran chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- in a debate sure to hone in on her utter lack of experience with foreign policy and national security issues. If she isn't careful, Palin could emerge from that encounter looking a lot like Dan Quayle in drag.