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New frontier in campaign spouses

CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Alaska's 'first dude' Todd Palin is a moose hunter, snowmobile racer, oil worker, union man and hockey dad.

September 07, 2008|Marjorie Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASILLA, ALASKA — The quiet man standing next to Sarah Palin is nothing like the other three campaign spouses caught in the whirlwind of the presidential race, and not just because he's a man.

Todd Palin is a conservative, a moose hunter, an oil worker, a union man, a snowmobile racer, a hockey fan and a onetime backer of Alaskan independence. And in the frontier society of Alaska, his bona fides are not that unusual.

He's a "true Alaskan," said Ben Harrell, owner of the Mocha Moose cafe here.

Part Yupik Eskimo, Todd Palin is best known locally for winning the grueling 2,000-mile Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race four times.

In last year's race, 400 miles from the finish line he hit a snow-covered barrel that sent him flying from his machine. He broke his arm -- and still finished the race in fourth place.

"He's one of the more durable tough guys who just grits his teeth and gets through it," said his racing partner, Scott Davis. "Extremely competitive and determined."

In Wasilla -- population less than 10,000 -- Alaska's "first dude" is largely known as a hockey dad who has taken on more family responsibilities because of his wife's career as Alaska's governor and now the Republican candidate for vice president.

Over the years, Todd Palin has drawn criticism for allegedly sitting in on the governor's news briefings in her Juneau office and receiving some of her e-mails dealing with official business.

More seriously, the Legislature has launched an investigation into allegations that Todd and Sarah Palin tried to get her former brother-in-law fired from his job as a state trooper, claiming he'd threatened the family.

Todd Palin's snowmobile racing is sponsored by a variety of Alaskan companies -- oil companies in particular -- and that has also raised some concerns over conflicts of interest.

But for many people in a town where personal, political and business interests often overlap, the complaints don't warrant much more than a shrug. "We're very independent people," Harrell said.

Todd and Sarah Palin are a classic small-town couple. They met at Wasilla High School shortly after he moved here. As the story goes, the then-Sarah Heath was smitten with the basketball star, as he was with her.

After graduation, Sarah went off to college in Hawaii and Idaho, while Todd stayed in Alaska. Sarah graduated in 1987 with a degree in communications from the University of Idaho, and a year later the couple eloped. They were married in City Hall to save on a costly wedding.

The couple have five children, from 18-year-old Track, who joined the Army and is about to ship out to Iraq, to Trig, born five months ago with Down syndrome.

Todd Palin, 44 this month, has said little since his wife entered the campaign, and several requests for interviews with him and family members went unanswered.

He inherited his family's commercial fishing license and sets nets for salmon every spring in Bristol Bay, often with his wife, 44, along to help with the rugged work aboard a 32-foot boat.

He is a facilities operator for giant BP on the North Slope oil fields. He took a leave from a management job when his wife was elected governor in 2006 but returned after about seven months in a nonmanagement job, according to BP spokesman Steve Reinhard.

He typically works half the month up on the North Slope and has the other half off, as do most of the workers.

Sports is a centerpiece of the family's life, friends say. When Todd's name is mentioned in town, it usually draws comment on the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race -- a weeklong dash of up to 100 mph by two-man teams from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks. It's one of the nation's most challenging tests of man and machine.

Davis, his racing partner, said that when Todd wasn't "busy cleaning and cooking and taking the kids," he was working on a snowmobile.

The two train for several months before the race and spend tens of thousands of dollars on their machines. Davis has won seven times and Palin four; they won once as a team.

Davis said they have registered for the race in February, but whether Todd Palin will be able to compete depends on the outcome of the campaign.

Davis said the two are among the older competitors now. "At our age it takes more and more dedication," he said.

Fortunately, it takes more than muscle to win. "The fastest guy rarely wins," Davis said. "It's the guy who gets to the finish line first, and that means navigation and mechanics and doing a better job."

--

marjorie.miller@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.

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