ANCHORAGE — Soon after Sarah Palin was elected mayor of the foothill town of Wasilla, Alaska, she startled a local music teacher by insisting in casual conversation that men and dinosaurs coexisted on an Earth created 6,000 years ago -- about 65 million years after scientists say most dinosaurs became extinct -- the teacher said.
After conducting a college band and watching Palin deliver a commencement address to a small group of home-schooled students in June 1997, Wasilla resident Philip Munger said, he asked the young mayor about her religious beliefs.
Palin told him that "dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time," Munger said. When he asked her about prehistoric fossils and tracks dating back millions of years, Palin said "she had seen pictures of human footprints inside the tracks," recalled Munger, who teaches music at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and has regularly criticized Palin in recent years on his liberal political blog, called Progressive Alaska.
The idea of a "young Earth" -- that God created the Earth about 6,000 years ago, and dinosaurs and humans coexisted early on -- is a popular strain of creationism.
Though in her race for governor she called for faith-based "intelligent design" to be taught along with evolution in Alaska's schools, Gov. Palin has not sought to require it, state educators say.
As governor and in her formative role as mayor of Wasilla, Palin has trod carefully between her evangelical faith and public policy on issues such as abortion and library books. At times she has retreated when her moves have sparked controversy or proved politically impractical.
She has harnessed the political muscle of social conservatives and antiabortion groups, yet she did not push hard for a special legislative session on abortion, and she did not challenge a court ruling that allowed health insurance for same-sex partners of state workers.
Palin has attended a number of prayer sessions with pastors and has quietly sought their guidance, but she is often mum on matters of faith in high-profile public forums.
Her aides say Palin's caution at the intersection of religion and governance is a studied effort to share her beliefs without forcing them on Alaska.
"She's obviously an intensively religious person," said Bill McAllister, Palin's chief spokesman as governor. "She understands that she's the governor and not preacher in chief. Religion informs her decisions, but she is not out to impose her views on Alaska."
McAllister said that he never heard Palin make such remarks about dinosaurs and that Palin preferred not to discuss her views on evolution publicly.
"I've never had a conversation like that with her or been apprised of anything like that," McAllister said. He added that "the only bigotry that's still safe is against Christians who believe in their faith."
Palin's critics say she holds back from trying to codify her faith-based views when she senses it will cost her politically.
"She's got a fine-tuned sense of how far to push," said John Stein, who guided Palin into her political career before she toppled him as Wasilla's mayor.
Stein said Palin displayed only hints of her fundamentalist Assembly of God upbringing when he first backed her for a nonpartisan run for Wasilla City Council in the early 1990s. But in 1996, when Palin ousted Mayor Stein with the aid of pink-colored antiabortion mailers and busloads of Christian grass-roots activists, she grew more overt about her plans, he said.
She combined her staff meetings with prayer sessions, Stein said, and upset the town's chief librarian by asking what the process would be for banning books. According to Stein, bans were never carried out only because "the library director was horrified and stood up to her."
Geri McCann, who ran the town museum under Mayor Palin, counters: "Sarah brought it up because she knew there was a moral majority in Wasilla who needed their voices heard."
During an October 2006 debate in the Alaska governor's race, Palin urged that evolution and creationist ideas be taught together in state schools. "Don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides," she said.
But since taking office in December 2006, Palin has made no moves to impose the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design," the modern version of creationist thought, in Alaska schools.
"As far as teachers are concerned, we haven't seen any push," said Joan Sargent, a Fairbanks teacher who heads the Alaska Science Teachers Assn. Teachers already have the flexibility to introduce creationist views, as an addendum to the mainstream study of evolution, Sargent said.
Palin is "still new at this game," said Democratic state Rep. Les Gara, whose colleagues also have gained leverage against Palin through a power-sharing arrangement with Palin rival Lyda Green, a Republican who is president of the state Senate.