John McCain took a risk in picking little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate, but now the campaign's playing it safer. She's sticking to a greatest-hits version of her convention speech on the campaign trail and steering clear of questions until she's comfortable enough for a hand-picked interviewer later this week.
More than 40 million people tuned in last week to listen to the speech from Palin, the 44-year-old first-term governor whom McCain announced as his surprise vice presidential pick just days before. Since then, that basic script is all anyone has heard from her publicly, and her only interaction with the media was a brief conversation with a small group of reporters on her plane Monday – off the record at her handlers' insistence.
Associated Press reporters were not on the plane, but an aide told journalists on board that all Palin flights would be off the record unless the media were told otherwise. At least one reporter objected. Two people on the flight said the Palins greeted the media and chatted about who had been to Alaska, but little else was said.
By comparison, her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, has been campaigning on his own, at times taking questions from audiences. In fact he split off to campaign separately from Barack Obama the day after Obama announced his selection. They rejoined at their party's convention and spent the following weekend campaigning together.
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Biden's appearances have touched on a range of issues – in Florida he talked about U.S. support for Israel, in Pennsylvania it was economics and tax policy. He was interviewed on NBC's “Meet the Press” last Sunday.
Amid growing sniping from Democrats, the McCain campaign announced that Palin would sit down for her first interview this week, with ABC. The interview, to be broadcast Thursday and Friday, will take place over two days in Alaska.
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis has said Palin will give more interviews “when we think it's time and when she feels comfortable doing it.”
“She's not scared to answer questions,” Davis said on “Fox News Sunday.”
So far, Palin has barely spoken with voters, either. Since the convention, she and McCain have breezed through a Wisconsin ice cream shop, a New Mexico restaurant and a Missouri barbecue place, shaking hands with diners but not taking questions. Photographers and TV cameras have been allowed full view while reporters are typically ushered too far away to ask questions or hear most of the conversations.
Her public remarks essentially have been excerpts of her convention speech, delivered while introducing McCain at rallies.
Her schedule released Tuesday shows she will attend a “welcome home” rally in Fairbanks, Alaska, this evening – her first major campaign appearance without McCain at her side and his advisers hanging in the wings.
To be sure, all candidates running for office give the same remarks over and over – Barack Obama's stump speech has hardly changed throughout the campaign, and McCain has been telling familiar stories and jokes for months.
But none of the candidates in this race has been so shielded from the media, so protected from any spontaneous situation. As before her convention speech, McCain's campaign is briefing Palin for her first TV interview.
After a rally Tuesday in Lancaster, Pa., a group of supporters waiting outside to shake hands with McCain and Palin screamed for Palin to jump up on an outdoor platform, as McCain had just done, and speak to them.
“Speech! Speech!” they cried. She continued down the line, shaking hands, and then hopped into an SUV.
In her prepared remarks, there are always descriptions of McCain as a “man who's there to serve his country and not just his party.” He's someone who's “not looking for a fight but is not afraid of one, either.” He “doesn't run with the Washington herd.” He's the only man in this election “who has ever really fought for you.”
And always the same details about herself, how she “stood up to the special interests, the lobbyists, big oil companies and the good ol' boys network,” as a mayor and then governor in Alaska.
The people in the crowds, many of whom say they've heard these lines before, still go wild when she repeats that McCain put everything on the line last year when he said “he would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war.”
She can be a bit cutting when it comes to Democrats.
“In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers,” she says. “And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.”
In Lancaster they cheered when she reminded them, as she did in her convention speech, of Obama's primary-season comment about how some small-town Americans are bitter and cling to guns or religion. She also said again that she said “thanks but no thanks” to Alaska's so-called Bridge to Nowhere, though her version of the story has been widely debunked.
She voiced support for the bridge in her gubernatorial campaign; the project was only called off after it became an embarrassment to the state.