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Palin an overnight success, years in the making

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By Rob Witwer

Immediately following the Democratic National Convention, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed Barack Obama leading John McCain by a comfortable 50-43 margin. USA Today/Gallup’s prior poll, released before the convention, showed Obama leading 48-45. The net difference of four points was the “bounce” provided by the convention.

McCain faced a steep seven-point deficit heading into the Republican National Convention in Minnesota. Even if he matched Obama’s four-point convention bounce, he would still trail by three points. Yet in the USA Today/Gallup poll released on the Sunday following the Republican National Convention, McCain actually led Obama 54-44. It was an astonishing turnaround.

Accounting for the seven-point deficit before the Republican National Convention, McCain’s convention bounce was an eye-opening 17 points (by way of comparison, in Gallup polls since 1964 the average convention bounce is 6.1 points).

So what happened? I think it’s clear a good chunk of those 17 points belong to Sarah Palin.

Much remains to be seen, but at least for now McCain has changed the game with his bold VP selection. Palin may be a new name to many Americans, but to those who follow politics, she’s been a sensation ever since she beat then-governor Frank Murkowski in the 2006 Alaska Republican primary.

In unseating Murkowski, Palin did more than defeat an incumbent. Frank Murkowski was an Alaskan political legend. From 1981 until 2002, he served in the U.S. Senate, chairing the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In 2002 he was elected governor by a comfortable 15-point margin.

But in 2006, Sarah Palin thought Murkowski had stopped serving the interests of Alaskans, instead favoring the oil and gas interests who financed his political campaigns. As the mayor of a small Alaska town, she embarked on the presumptuous task of taking down a political Goliath. She ran on a platform of cleaning up government.

Defying the odds, Palin beat Murkowski. Once elected, she cut-half-billion dollars out of the Alaska budget and sold a jet Murkowski’s administration had purchased. She cleaned up corruption in her own party. In the process, she achieved an almost unheard-of 80 percent approval rating from the people she serves.

When Palin was nominated, wise observers on the Democratic side of the aisle knew that she was not an empty vessel, nor was she appointed simply for her gender. She’s a sharp, savvy and practiced political giant-killer. Yet many Democrats and media pundits seem to have underestimated her. Instead of criticizing her on substantive issues, they went after her family. Big mistake.

Writing in the liberal U.K. newspaper The Guardian, columnist Nick Cohen hit it on the head: “Journalists who believe in women’s equality should not spread sexual smears about a candidate, or snigger at her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, or declare that a mother with a young family cannot hold down a responsible job for the pragmatic reason that they will look like gross hypocrites if they do.” This, he contends, had a great deal to do with the public’s initial embrace of Palin as a candidate.

What’s more, Palin has a knack for speaking directly to voters. In a column the day after her speech Michael Reagan said, “Welcome back, dad.” He isn’t the only one to notice the similarities. At a Republican event on Saturday, I saw energy and enthusiasm I haven’t seen since the 1980s. This is the impact she’s having on the race, and national polls bear it out.

After Palin’s incredible speech last week, she won’t be able to fly under the radar any more. Things will get tougher. But it sure looks like Sarah Palin’s up to the job.

Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is the outgoing state representative for House District 25.