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CAMPAIGN '08

GOP wasn't expecting this challenge

McCain's campaign is shaken up by the announcement that his running mate's teen daughter is pregnant.

September 02, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, MINN. — Republicans swung into damage control Monday as their scaled-back convention was overtaken by news that the unmarried teenage daughter of vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin was five months pregnant.

The revelation introduced a highly personal and unpredictable element into a presidential campaign already steeped in gender politics.

In a statement released hours before the convention opened, Palin and her husband, Todd, did not say when their daughter Bristol, 17, told them of her pregnancy. Bristol intends to marry the father, the statement said -- a move that drew widespread praise from religious leaders and convention delegates.

John McCain, campaigning in Ohio and Pennsylvania, did not take questions from reporters. But aides said the Arizona senator was aware of the Palin family's situation when he stunned observers Friday by choosing Alaska's governor as his running mate. His aides also warned that the media would face a backlash if it pried too deeply into the Palins' lives.

"It's a private family matter. Life happens in families," said Steve Schmidt, chief strategist of the McCain campaign. "If people try to politicize this, the American people will be appalled by it."

The political effect of Palin's announcement will depend on how voters process the news. Speaking to reporters in Michigan, Democratic nominee Barack Obama -- whose mother was 18 when he was born -- reiterated statements that candidates' families should be kept off-limits.

But the gossip dominated the day's talk after it flashed through this convention city, starting on BlackBerrys and then spreading rapidly on cable television and the Internet.

Gender has been a dominant theme of this campaign, which featured Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's historic White House bid and the drama over supporters struggling to accept her defeat. McCain's selection of Palin was seen as an attempt to win over female voters who remain hostile to, or at the least ambivalent about, Obama. But opinions are still forming about the little-known Palin, 44, and the news Monday added another layer of uncertainty.

"The choice of Palin is either brilliant or a colossal screw-up on the part of John McCain," said independent political analyst Charles Cook. "Are people going to say, 'Gee, she's a regular person coping with problems just like us?' Or are people going to say, 'How can she possibly run for vice president with everything going on her life?' "

Citing a legislative investigation into Palin's firing of the state public safety commissioner -- a matter allegedly linked to a family dispute -- Cook suggested: "She can't take on a whole lot more water." On Monday, it was disclosed that the state had hired a private attorney to represent Palin in the legislative probe and also that her husband had been arrested for drunken driving more than two decades ago.

With scores of reporters descending on Alaska to comb through Palin's background, McCain aides said the campaign had dispatched a team of lawyers and other campaign operatives to the state. The aides denied that McCain was vetting Palin again.

The latest development raises questions about the thoroughness of the process leading up to Palin's selection. A GOP source with close ties to the campaign said that McCain aides "vetted her through Google and clipping services."

"They didn't send lawyers there or talk to people who knew her there," said the source, who did not want to be identified discussing the campaign's inside moves.

But Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella said more than two dozen McCain aides reviewed public records and legal documents, her credit history, news accounts, speeches, financial records and any formal complaints against her. Palin completed a 40-page questionnaire and was interviewed for three to four hours by Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., a longtime Washington attorney, and spoke at length with McCain's top advisors.

In the interview with Culvahouse, Palin disclosed her daughter's pregnancy and her husband's DUI, Comella said.

Schmidt told reporters that the campaign issued the statement on Bristol's pregnancy to rebut Internet rumors that the governor's 4-month-old baby, Trig, is in fact Bristol's child.

The father of Bristol's baby was identified in the statement as Levi, but the campaign said it was not disclosing his full name or age or how he and Bristol know each other.

"We had hoped this could be an issue that was private -- that the family could deal with this issue privately," Schmidt told reporters who swarmed him at the convention soon after the statement was issued. "It used to be that a lot of those smears and the crap on the Internet stayed out of the newsrooms of serious journalists. That's not the case anymore."

Although the campaign declined to release the father's full name, residents of the Palins' hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, seemed familiar with the couple. They identified the father as a fellow high school senior and a prominent player on the school hockey team.

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