In two short years, Sarah Palin moved from small-town mayor with a taste for mooseburgers to the governor’s office and now — making history — to John McCain’s side as the first female running mate on a Republican presidential ticket.
She has more experience catching fish than dealing with foreign policy or national affairs.
Talk about a rocketing ascent.
In turning to her, McCain picked an independent figure in his own mold, one who has taken on Alaska’s powerful oil industry and, at age 44, is three years younger than Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and a generation younger than McCain, 72.
Palin’s selection was a jaw-dropper, as McCain passed over many other better known prospects, some of whom had been the subject of intense speculation for weeks or months. "Holy cow," said her father, Chuck Heath, who got word something was up while driving to his remote hunting camp.
Palin had been in the running-mate field but as a distinct long shot.
She brings a strong anti-abortion stance to the ticket and opposes gay marriage — constitutionally banned in Alaska before her time — but exercised a veto that essentially granted benefits to gay state employees and their partners.
"She stands up for what’s right, and she doesn’t let anyone tell her to sit down." McCain said in introducing her to an Ohio rally. "She’s exactly who I need."
Said Palin: "I didn’t get into government to do the safe and easy things. A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not why the ship is built."
Democrats seized on the gaping experience gap and said McCain now has no business questioning the seasoning of their nominee.
Palin lives in Wasilla, a town of 6,500 about 30 miles north of Anchorage, with her husband, Todd, a blue-collar North Slope oil worker who won the 2007 Iron Dog, a 1,900-mile snowmobile race. He is part Yup’ik Eskimo. The two have spent summers fishing commercially for salmon, an enterprise that once left her with broken fingers aboard their boat.
These days, she’s typically seen walking the Capitol halls in black or red power suits while reading text messages on Blackberry screens in each hand. She often reads and dexterously types responses without upsetting her stride, but she’ll stop to greet tourists touring the Capitol.
She came into office preaching reform at a time when a federal corruption investigation shadowed a number of Alaska’s Republican elected officials. To rid the Capitol of the appearance of undue influence, she kept lobbyists out of her office.
After two years in office, her popularity remains high; she has 80 percent approval ratings.
But Palin’s clean-hands reputation has recently come into question. A legislative panel is investigating whether she dismissed Alaska’s public safety commissioner because he would not fire her former brother-in-law as a state trooper. Trooper Mike Wooten went through a messy divorce from Palin’s sister.
The governor denied orchestrating the dozens of telephone calls made by her husband and members of her administration to Wooten’s bosses. She says she welcomes the investigation: "Hold me accountable."
Even before McCain picked her, people outside Alaska were beginning to notice the young governor with the bright smile — runnerup in the 1984 Miss Alaska contest — whose good looks spawned a bumper sticker that read: "Coldest State. Hottest Governor." Last December, she posed for the fashion magazine Vogue but turned down their effort to put her in runway attire.
"At first they had me in a bunch of furs," she said of the photo shoot. "Yeah, I have furs on my wall, but I don’t wear furs. I had to show them my bunny boots and my North Face clothing."
She did the photo shoot while just a few months pregnant, which Vogue and the public did not know.
What she knew and others didn’t at the time was that her son, Trig, would be born with Down syndrome. There was never a doubt that she and Todd would have the child, she told the AP earlier this year in describing what she and her husband has confronted.
"We’ve both been very vocal about being pro life," Palin said. "We understand that every innocent life has wonderful potential."
Still, Palin waited a few days before telling her husband who was out of town. Once Todd returned and heard the prognosis, he told his wife: "We shouldn’t be asking, ‘Why us?’ We should be saying, ‘Well, why not us?’"
Trig Paxson Van Palin (an homage to the rock band Van Halen) was born in April. With Trig in tow, Palin returned to work a few days later, for a meeting of her energy team.
Her handling of this experience, her opposition to abortion, even her leadership of her high school chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes all could help McCain’s standing with social conservatives who have been skeptical of him.
Palin is "a woman of faith who has a strong position on life, a consistent opinion on judges," said Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law and founder of the legal group Liberty Counsel, who has sought to coalesce evangelicals around McCain. "This will absolutely energize McCain’s campaign and energize conservatives."
Alaska’s first female governor arrived at the Capitol in 2006 on an ethics reform platform after defeating two former governors in the primary and general elections.
In the primary, Palin defeated incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski, who also had 22 years of experience in the U.S. Senate.
Her task didn’t seem any easier in the general election, but she handily beat Tony Knowles, a popular Democrat who had served two earlier terms as governor.
During her first year in office, Palin moved away from the powerful old guard of the state Republican Party and has refused to kowtow to the powerful oil industry, instead presiding over a tax increase on oil company profits that now has the state’s treasury swelling.
But she is a proponent of petroleum development, in tune with McCain, although the two disagree on drilling in Alaska’s protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She favors drilling there; he opposes it.
The governor also opposed designating polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, fearing that step would get in the way of a proposed natural gas pipeline tapping the North Slope’s vast reserves.
Before becoming governor, her political experience consisted of terms as Wasilla’s mayor and councilwoman and a stint as head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Her parents Chuck and Sally were trying to reach the abandoned gold mine that serves as their hunting camp when their son-in-law called them Thursday to tell them to tune in to the radio when they got there. A flooded creek turned them around for home.
"I should have put two and two together," her dad said. "I’d rather go moose hunting than be involved with politics."
But if she’s down-home, she’s also politically savvy.
"Sarah Palin for her entire political career has been underestimated," said Paulette Simpson of the Alaska Federation of Republican Women. "She’s tough, she’s tenacious. I believe that she does have what it takes to get out there. Again, her ability to connect with voters and make a case is very, very, very strong."
Palin’s confrontations with the state GOP began when Murkowski named her chairwoman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. There, Palin exposed current Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich, who was also on the commission, for ethical violations.
In 2005, Palin co-filed an ethics complaint against Murkowski’s longtime aide and then attorney general, Gregg Renkes, for having a financial interest in a company that stood to gain from an international trade deal he was helping craft.
The Palins’ five children are Track, 19; Bristol 17; Willow 14; Piper, 7, and baby Trig.
Track enlisted in the Army in 2007 on the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and has been assigned to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.
Palin was born Feb. 11, 1964, in Idaho, but her parents moved to Alaska shortly after her birth to teach. She received a bachelor of science degree in communications-journalism from the University of Idaho in 1987.
Calvin Woodward reported from Washington.