ANCHORAGE — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is as complex as the place she calls home. Plucked from near-political obscurity to become Sen. John McCain's running mate, Palin either has pitch-perfect political instincts or has benefited from a spectacular run of luck that has landed her in the ultimate right place at the right time.
It is easy to see why McCain was drawn to her; their political resumes have much in common. The 44-year-old Republican has sold herself as a political maverick willing to buck her party over principle, an ethics reformer who quit a lucrative job rather than play ball with the old boys' network and a pragmatist who will reach across the aisle to get her agenda enacted. Like McCain, she has at times been a black sheep in her own party. Also like McCain, she has been accused of overstepping ethical bounds on occasion.
And perhaps because she is a woman -- a former beauty queen at that -- in an exceedingly macho state, not everyone has taken her seriously. Her schoolmarm look, she has said, was developed as a defense against just that attitude. Still, some who know her well believe her to be a policy lightweight. Others accuse her of focusing only on oil and gas and ignoring other important issues -- such as healthcare and education -- that she is not particularly passionate about. (Similar charges have been leveled at McCain as well.) Though there has been a mix of reaction to her selection by McCain, she is an exceedingly popular figure in her state. Opponents cross her at their peril.
"The landscape up here is littered with people who have underestimated her," said Eric Croft, a Democratic former state representative who enlisted her help when he investigated a Republican oil commissioner for ethical breaches. "Maybe she is not ready for prime time, or maybe she is going to litter the national landscape with people who have underestimated her."
She came of age politically when the decades-long iron grip of Republicans in Alaska was just beginning to loosen, partly through scandal and partly through changing demographics. For three decades or more, Alaska was an overwhelmingly Republican state. It was dominated by a trio of politicians who were in lock-step with the oil and gas industry but managed to remain overwhelmingly popular because they brought home billions of federal dollars.
But the era of those men -- Sen. Ted Stevens, former Gov. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young (author of the infamous "bridge to nowhere" earmark) -- was already drawing to a close when Palin in 2005 mounted her successful challenge to replace Murkowski as governor. An FBI probe, which culminated in a raid of legislators' offices in August 2006, resulted in criminal charges against a handful of legislators. Stevens is under indictment for failing to report gifts, and Young is defending himself against bribery charges.
Independents, now the largest bloc of Alaska voters, were tired of business as usual, and Palin was able to capitalize on their mood. Already, she had quit a $125,000-a-year job as chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission out of disgust for the back scratching she observed between the industry and her fellow commissioners.
"She was the right voice at the right time," said rental car executive Andrew Halcro, who ran as an independent against Palin and Democratic former Gov. Tony Knowles. "The previous governor had, like, a 20% approval rating. They were tired of this just relentless, brute, ignoring-the-public mentality. Then the FBI raids. All she had to do was show up . . . and she got elected."
What Alaskans got, as she rose from mayor of the small town of Wasilla to the governor's mansion, was a chief executive focused on two major issues: making oil and gas companies pay higher taxes and getting a controversial natural-gas pipeline built.
Many who have worked with her -- and against her -- say that in the case of the oil tax, she piggybacked on Democratic efforts that were well underway.
"There's always been a little bit of an air of an opportunist about the governor," said state Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat, who has been a strong advocate for the public getting a larger slice of Alaskan oil and gas revenues.
This year, the state expects to take in about $10 billion in petroleum revenues, a record.
French said that Palin initially embraced a bill that was fairly tepid and would have raised less money than a similar bill supported by her Republican predecessor. She worked with Democrats -- who constitute about a third of the Legislature -- and a stronger bill was crafted. Half the Republicans supported it.
"It would be incorrect to say the bill came from the governor," French said.
"There's a real question whether she's a Republican or a Democrat," said GOP state Rep. Mike Hawker.
"She has succeeded in her own limited policy agenda as a Republican governor by having the Democrat caucus in lock-step with her."