ST PAUL, MINNESOTA // If John McCain meant to shake things up, he sure succeeded. The selection of the "average hockey mom", Sarah Palin, as his number two was described by members of both political parties after her introduction in Ohio last week as bold, risky and nothing short of a game-changer.
And that was before revelations that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant; her husband belonged to a fringe political party in Alaska that supported a vote on the state's secession from the United States; and she initially backed the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere", a federal project that she has crowed about cancelling. If the first rule of choosing a vice presidential running mate is "Do no harm", it was becoming less clear as the Republican convention began its third day yesterday whether Mr McCain had heeded that - even despite Mrs Palin's warm reception inside the convention hall.
The much-awaited speech of Mrs Palin, who had been out of the public view for several days, accepting the vice presidential nomination, was set for last night. It was a speech her supporters said would showcase the qualities and values that prompted Mr McCain to choose her, seemingly out of the blue. "You can't go wrong focusing on her, her values, her grit, the way she reacts to situations, her ideals," said Nick Stepovich, a convention delegate, state representative and restaurant owner in Fairbanks, Alaska. "McCain did it. He hit a home run with that one."
The pick of Mrs Palin was meant to - and seemingly did - energise both the party's conservative wing, which has been unenthusiastic at best over the Arizona senator, and other Republicans here. Three women arrived at the convention this week with signs affixed to their backs, which, when lined up in a row, read: "We Love Sarah". But questions deepened over whether Mr McCain, who had met Mrs Palin only once, had fully vetted her before adding her name to the ticket, questions that continued to siphon attention from the Republicans' convention programme, already condensed because of Hurricane Gustav. Mr McCain said she had been thoroughly vetted and that he was pleased with the result.
His senior strategist, Steve Schmidt, told Politico the controversy was a "faux media scandal", and the campaign announced it was launching a television ad saying Mrs Palin has more experience than Barack Obama. The focus on Mrs Palin set off a furious, if familiar, battle between conservative stalwarts, particularly on talk radio, and what they described as a liberal media intent on tearing the Republican ticket, and her, down. And some suggested the whole thing would only fire up the party more.
"I guess the mother instinct came out in me: how dare you," said Kendal Unruh, 42, a self-described "values voter" from Colorado who runs a ministry for disabled children. "All it did was absolutely drive me in even more, and solidify my support for her even more." "Digging's fair," said Mrs Unruh, in a hat pinned with handmade pins that said, "I Support Unwed Mothers" and "Liberals: Pick on Someone Your Own Age". "As an elected official, decisions that you've made are fair game. It crossed a boundary, and that boundary is kids. I don't care if it's the son of a communist dictator, they're not fair game."
Republicans tried to push back on the experience issue. Amy Pfotenhauer, a top aide to the McCain campaign, penned an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal saying: "Ignore the chauvinists. Palin has real experience." And Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee and a good friend of Mr McCain's, took to the convention podium on Tuesday to offer a resounding endorsement of the governor.
"Some Washington pundits and media big shots are in a frenzy over the selection of a woman who has actually governed rather than just talked a good game on the Sunday talk shows and hit the Washington cocktail circuit," Mr Thompson said. He called her a "breath of fresh air". Still, some Republicans knew little about Mrs Palin. "What I know about the governor, I've read about over the last 72 hours. She seems to me to be a very unique person," offered Bob Corker, a US senator from Tennessee, going on to praise her "common touch" and her experience as a mayor. "I am still getting to know her, just as the press is getting to know her." It was indeed, as news organisations dispatched reporters to the far-flung 49th state to try to learn more about Mrs Palin's background and political life, including a state ethics investigation into alleged abuse of power (the results are due just before election day).
The McCain campaign also sent aides to Alaska, feeding the impression, accurate or not, that they had not done all their homework beforehand. Matthew Dowd, a top strategist in the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004, said this week after the news broke about Bristol Palin, the governor's daughter, that it would likely not on its own drag the ticket down. "Today it's not bad, but if two or three or more shoes drop about other things that we learn, then I think people start saying, what's this last frontier in Alaska?" Mr Dowd said. "It now becomes a shtick for late-night comedy, well, we really didn't know this person. Instead of an 'out of the box' pick, it becomes 'was he out of his mind' pick.
"I think time will tell whether or not he shot himself in the foot," Mr Dowd said. "We'll know by her performance on the campaign trail, and we'll know by what information we learn." @email:firstname.lastname@example.org