"The Democrats talked about putting a woman on the ticket [this election], but we did it," said Caroline Malenick, an alternate from Virginia perched in the upper deck of the Xcel Energy Center just before two other leading female lights -- First Lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain -- were to take the stage. "She's a reformer, like [Sen. John] McCain, she's from outside Washington. The fact that she's a woman is a bonus."
The 44-year-old mother of five has taken the Republican world by storm in the four days since McCain elevated her from near-obscurity to be his running mate. Her hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, mooseburger-eating persona has charmed party regulars, while her stare-down of the Alaskan good old boys political network has earned her a measure of respect across the spectrum.
Her selection marks a coming-of-age moment for Republican women who can remember when many in the party thought women of a certain age should stay home and raise families.
"I always thought it would happen in my lifetime, but sometimes I wondered," said Evie Axdahl, a Minnesota National Republican committeewoman and grand doyenne of the party. "I got started in politics in 1954. The theory then, and for a long time after, was that we should be home, taking care of babies. We've been overlooked for too long. This shows we've broken through that mind-set." She was sitting ringside, a prized position reserved for pivotal states.
In her case, it was the host state, and Axdahl looked out over a sea of McCain-Palin buttons and a convention that seemed about evenly divided between men and women. "It didn't look like this in 1954. If McCain wants to make change, this is a good place to start."
Palin remains an unknown quantity to much of the American public. A USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 51 percent of voters had never heard of her before her debut Friday. Of those who had, 39 percent thought she was ready for the office, 33 percent said she was not ready and 29 percent had no opinion. That's one of the lowest measures of confidence since George H.W. Bush selected political unknown Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988. A Rasmussen poll shows a gender gap, but not in Palin's favor. It found that, among Democratic women, 48 percent said Palin was not ready to be a heartbeat from the presidency.
Among the Republican faithful, however, the image of Palin as a strong, straight-shooter who juggles parenting and politics, updos and upsets, is one that resonates with those who see a little of themselves in her. "I've banged a little on that glass ceiling myself," said Jane Milhans, a bank vice president sporting star-spangled, red-and-blue flashing earrings and a jaunty, white Navy sailor's cap emblazoned with Washington (state) for McCain. "She's not afraid to stand up to men or corruption," Milhans said. "I like strong women."
The bold choice
Still barely over the surprise of Palin's candidacy, the political world was rocked again on the first day of the convention by news that Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant out of wedlock.
Milhans and other delegates said Palin should not suffer from the news. "Accidents happen," Milhans said. "I'm not going to judge what happened with that girl. That's a family issue. Anyone who's been a parent would understand."
Down on the convention floor, Florida delegate Mildred Fernandez said she was overjoyed by Palin's selection, saying she thinks that, despite Palin's conservative background, she'll hold special appeal for apolitical women and moderates. "When you have five kids, believe me, you become a mediator," Fernandez said.
Delegates are aware that Palin's résumé is thin compared with many vice presidential candidates -- she's been governor for 18 months. "Would a man with that résumé have gotten this far? She was chosen in part because of her gender. That's the honest answer," said former Minnesota State Auditor Pat Anderson, who is a delegate.
"But don't sell her experience short. I was a mayor in Eagan, and mayor is one of the toughest jobs out there." Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the hometown favorite, would have been a safe choice, she said, "but Sarah Palin was the bold choice."
Judgment questions raised
Jeff Blodgett, who heads the political operation for Barack Obama in Minnesota, said that McCain's pick of Palin was a pure political calculation that will backfire. "This raises legitimate questions about his judgment," Blodgett said. "This is a tactical move to win women. They seem to think that women will vote based on gender alone. It strikes me that there isn't very high regard for women if you look at it that way."
Palin clearly has some work to do even locking down the Palin family vote. Mother-in-law Faye Palin is still wavering, telling the New York Daily News that she enjoys hearing Obama speak and has not decided which way she'll vote. Of her daughter-in-law, Palin told reporters, "I'm not sure what she brings to the ticket other than she's a woman and a conservative. Well, she's a better speaker than McCain. People will say she hasn't been on the national scene long enough, but I believe she's a quick study."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288