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Pregnant pause

By Felicity Spector

Updated on 02 September 2008

Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to deconstruct the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's Republican running mate.

So there was a storm surge after all: not in Louisiana but Minneapolis St Paul, as GOP operatives frantically scrambled to get the full backstory on their hastily chosen vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, and her increasingly complicated family.

It's either a plot straight out of Desperate Housewives - can't you just see Governor Palin as a Bree Van der Kamp manquee? - or, as the wags have already dubbed it, the Juno of Juneau.

Besieged by reporters, top McCain aide Steve Schmidt said the Palins had asked for privacy - this from a man whose team had just sent out a press release declaring that 17-year-old Bristol was expecting a child.

A story that had, yes, been rife with unfounded rumours on internet blog sites, chiefly the liberal Daily Kos. But as Harvard's professor Alex Jones put it, a story that was untouched "until the person involved made a statement".

That legitimised it for the traditional media.

Poor Bristol. Not to mention her boyfriend Levi, whose regular jock features and expletive-strewn MySpace profile have also been plastered all over the world's press.

It can't be that often that a self-styled redneck kid from Wasila gets splashed in the New York Post.

But it all raises more serious questions about McCain's own judgement - not for picking a woman or an unknown, but for a decision that now looks incredibly over-hasty and badly researched.

Other details of Palin's background are now emerging. She belonged to an extreme Alaskan secessionist party for two years; she hired a private lawyer in that "troopergate" investigation into whether she abused her position to get rid of the state's safety commissioner: her husband's arrest on drunk driving charges more than 20 years ago.

From her home town, more evidence that she was no natural maverick but a hard-nosed politician prepared to fight tough.

One former Wasila mayor, John Stein, recalls the time she asked the town library how she could ban books "because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. The librarian was aghast." Reports from the time show Palin threatened to fire the librarian for not giving her "full support".

None of this, of course, is a deal breaker - but all begging the question: just how well does McCain know his running mate?

His advisers say she was "thoroughly vetted". But according to the New York Times this really was a last-minute pick - McCain himself held out for Lieberman or Tom Ridge until he was warned the Republicans wouldn't stand for a VP who favoured abortion rights.

And it seems that whole argument over Obama's lack of experience simply wasn't taking off. The LA Times quotes an anonymous Republican source, "the McCain team used little more than a Google internet search as part of a rushed effort to review Palin's potential pitfalls."

Although the putative running mates had only met once - and talked over the phone - there was a vetting process, of sorts under the aegis of long time Washington lawyer Arthur B Culvahouse.

It's not known whether he'd been informed about Bristol's pregnancy or the other details only now emerging into public view.

Certainly, only a cursory check was done of cuttings in the local press. And, says the New York Times, although 10 McCain operatives have now been dispatched to Alaska, it's all a bit after the event.

Officials in the state say they're surprised no-one was out asking questions about her before. One fellow Republican representative, Gail Phillips, revealed 'I called 30 or 40 people, political leaders, business leaders, community leaders. Not one of them had heard... I haven't found anybody who was asked anything."

Says former McCain campaign chief Dan Schnur, the '08 team clearly thought the boldness of their choice was worth the risk.

But before the rush to declare her a liability, consider this. Part of Palin's appeal is her down-home, regular mom ordinariness. Say delegates at this week's convention, "She's real, and she's been there. They are a normal American family with all the joys and problems."

And that hits all the right buttons with the demographic the McCain team are trying to attract.

The last word to Michael Moore, who's cautious not to rub his hands with glee at the prospect of the GOP's demise. "Before everyone gets all smug and self-righteous about the Palin selection, remember where you live."

"You live in a nation of gun owners and hunters. You live in a country where one out of three girls get pregnant before they are 20.

"You live in a nation of C students. Knocking Bush for being a C student only endeared him to the nation of C students.

"Knock Palin for having kids, for having a kid who's having a baby, for anything that is part of her normalness - a normalness that looks very familiar to so many millions of Americans - well, you do this at your own peril.

"Assuming she's still on the ticket two weeks from now, she will be a much tougher opponent than anyone expects."

Sarah Palin's certainly brought something to the Republican ticket: a script whose ending nobody can now predict.

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