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Palin represents new focus: reform

McCain, like Clinton before him, decides the experience argument is not the way to beat Obama.

September 01, 2008|Robin Abcarian and Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

ST. PAUL, MINN. — With his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain is giving his campaign a political makeover: Rather than selling himself as a war hero with national security credentials, he is donning the mantle of the reformer.

The new approach borrows a page from the playbook of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who late in the Democratic primary campaign framed herself as a hero of the struggling middle class.

McCain, like the New York senator, has apparently decided that being the candidate of experience is not the formula for beating Barack Obama.

The 44-year-old Palin, with her union-member husband, her staunch conservatism on social issues and her limited foreign policy resume, personifies the new McCain theme.

Republicans conceded Sunday that her presence on the ticket undercuts McCain's argument that Democratic rival Obama lacks the experience to lead in a time of war.

But the surprising pick reflects an acknowledgment by McCain that the old strategy needed fixing at a time when economic woes have overshadowed the foreign policy issues that were once seen as the Arizona senator's greatest strength.

"It's a one-two punch," said John Hinderaker, who helps run Power Line, a popular conservative blog.

Hinderaker said he was initially dismayed, thinking that Palin would diminish McCain's experience argument, but said he had begun to feel that she could help the presumptive Republican nominee.

"You have to have the base turning out and motivated," he said, but noted that Palin would also attract blue-collar voters because of her middle-class roots and taste for hunting and fishing.

Many GOP strategists and voters said they were still digesting Palin's selection and what it meant for McCain's chances. New surveys conducted since Friday's announcement were inconclusive about whether she would have a meaningful effect on the vote.

Campaign officials said Palin could help them woo a constituency that was important to Clinton and remains skeptical of Obama -- so-called hockey moms and other working-class voters. And she has already proved effective in energizing evangelical leaders, some of whom had been threatening to withhold support from McCain.

The Palin announcement was a shock to many Republicans, who had expected McCain, a 72-year-old cancer survivor, to choose someone who complemented his strengths and could easily assume the presidency should something happen to him.

But as McCain and Palin wrapped up their first weekend as a team, it was clear the campaign had changed focus. Palin represents the culmination of a weeks-long search for the best way to blunt Obama's themes of hope and change.

And Palin has quickly been thrust from political obscurity into a starring role.

At the Minnesota State Fair, a hub of political culture in this battleground state, the McCain campaign booth was adorned with a large color portrait of the Alaska governor. There was no comparable McCain photo in sight.

And, while top Republicans such as President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney canceled their scheduled appearances tonight at the Republican National Convention, Palin was dispatched to Minnesota at the last minute to rally the party. The symbolism was clear: Palin, a national newcomer, was now a standard-bearer for the party.

"They had to pivot away from experience," said Republican consultant John Weaver, a former McCain advisor. "In a change election, they have to give that up now."

As recently as Wednesday, in the midst of the Democratic National Convention, a McCain television ad dismissed Obama as "dangerously unprepared to be president." But by this weekend, McCain senior advisor Charles Black was downplaying the idea that experience had ever been a central McCain theme. "We never used experience as the big argument," he said.

And Sunday in St. Paul, the site of this week's Republican National Convention, House GOP leader John A. Boehner dismissed the importance of experience.

"We've all started new jobs from time to time in our career," he said. "And most of you can remember the first day that you spent on almost every one of those new jobs. Because when you got it, you thought, 'Oh my God, how am I going to do this?'

"Nobody's qualified on the first day," he continued. "I don't care whether it's Barack Obama or whether it's John McCain sitting in the White House."

McCain, despite more than a year of casting himself as the best-prepared to be commander in chief, used a Fox News interview to describe the nationally unknown Palin as his "soul mate" for her work as a reformer in Alaska.

"In all due respect to my friends [who think] that she has never been on some of the inside-the-Beltway activities, I say thank God," McCain said.

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