By the time Sarah Palin took the stage last week at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, her selection as John McCain’s running mate was looking like an even bigger gamble than when he’d announced it a few days earlier—and, hoo boy, that was saying something, since from the outset it seemed as if McCain had laid down his life savings on a million-to-one shot. The reaction of professional Republicans to the Palin pick fell somewhere along a continuum between shock and incredulity. Her résumé was tissue-thin and lacking even the faintest trace of national-security credentials. McCain barely knew her. The process by which she’d been vetted was hasty, half-assed, haphazard. Her rollout began with the announcement, on the first morning of the Republican convention, that her teenage daughter was pregnant. A steady drip-drip-drip of revelations about her past associations (with a Jews-for-Jesus preacher, a fringe political party, Pat Buchanan) and alleged ethical transgressions had the press scenting blood in the water. Reporters quickly hightailed it to Alaska. So did teams of Democratic opposition researchers and Republican lawyers. “It’s the worst mishandling of a V.P. choice since McGovern tapped Eagleton,” said a prominent GOP strategist. “I’ll bet she is off the ticket inside of ten days.”
Yet the roar of approval was deafening inside the hall when Palin strode to the podium. The faithful, fueled by resentment toward the “liberal media”—at one point the delegates chanted “Shame on you” in the general direction of an aghast Gwen Ifill—over its treatment of her, wanted her to wow them. And she did. She was glamorous, confident, homespun, sassy, snarky, and unafraid to wield the stiletto. In fact, she seemed to delight in plunging it into Barack Obama’s kidneys. She said that being a small-town mayor was kinda like being a community organizer, “except that you have actual responsibilities.” She sneered that a presidential campaign isn’t “a journey of personal discovery.” She called Obama an elitist, an egotist, a taxer, a spender, an accomplishment-free zone. By the end, you had no doubt why they call her Sarah Barracuda.
How well the baring of Palin’s teeth played in America-land was difficult to gauge. But the thumbs-up verdict in the hall was nearly universal and was seconded by the panjandrums of the political-media industrial complex. As NBC’s Chuck Todd crisply put it, “Conservatives have found their Obama.”
The Palin prelection was more than a terrific performance, however. It was a revelation—not about Ms. Barracuda but about her new boss and how he intends to wage the fall campaign. According to people close to the McCain operation, the Arizona senator’s veep deliberations were driven by a signal insight provided by his ever-pessimistic pollster, Bill McInturff: that unless McCain did something dramatic to alter the dynamics of the race, he was doomed. McCain’s preferred game-changer, by all accounts, was pro-choice, independent senator Joe Lieberman, who would enable him to reclaim his maverick status, distance himself from George W. Bush, and make a bid for moderate undecided voters. But then McCain was informed by Karl Rove and others that a pro-choice V.P. would never be affirmed at the GOP convention. With Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty deemed insufficiently transformative, McCain reached back and heaved the ball downfield in the direction of Sarah Palin.
The implications of McCain’s Hail Mary were puzzling at a glance. Was he trying to reposition himself as a reformer? To reel in disaffected supporters of Hillary Clinton? Maybe, maybe. But now that the smoke has cleared and the Republican convention is history, there’s no escaping the meaning of McCain’s embrace of a gun-toting, pro-life, anti-sex-ed, possibly creationist running mate: that his general-election strategy is modeled on the one authored by Rove on behalf of Bush in 2004. A strategy, that is, that revolves around revving up and turning out the party’s base. Around God and guns and abortion and family values—a revival of the culture wars—combined with a withering onslaught to render Obama unacceptable.
That McCain eventually wound up here should come as a less than total surprise, for the guru guiding his message and strategy is Steve Schmidt, who made his bones working for Rove in 2004. Schmidt is regarded as one of the toughest, savviest, most skilled operatives in the business—but his mettle will be severely tested by his opposite number on Team Obama, David Axelrod, the class of the Democratic field. For months already, the two men have faced off like a pair of chess grand masters, carefully arranging their pieces on the board, occasionally snatching a pawn or a rook, setting up their candidates for the final drive to capture the other side’s king.