Win or lose, John McCain threw the long ball Friday when he chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
His choice of a young, largely unknown woman from as far outside Washington as possible shakes up the presidential campaign and has the potential to help him win the White House or doom his chances.
On the upside, her reputation as a maverick reformer who's willing to buck her own party magnifies McCain's renegade image and could help him win independent voters.
Her gender – the first woman ever on a Republican ticket and only the second in history, after Geraldine Ferraro on the Democratic side in 1984 – could help McCain win some women who'd supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries but were angry that she wasn't chosen to be Barack Obama's running mate.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The downside: Palin's relative inexperience in office – she served 10 years in the government of a small town and is two years into her first term as governor – undercuts McCain's charge that Obama is inexperienced.
This choice also could leave voters who are nervous about McCain's age anxious that he would put a novice a heartbeat away from the presidency.
“She's the ultimate high-risk, high-reward choice,” said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Polling Institute at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University. “She's a game-changer either way.”
McCain clearly wants her to underscore his history as an independent thinker who's often willing to challenge his own party, a crucial point as he tries to show voters that he can be different from the unpopular President Bush despite his support of Bush's tax and foreign policies.
A “hockey mom,” Palin, 44, could appeal to female voters.
Although Clinton and Obama healed their rift this week, that may not assuage all her supporters.
A Gallup poll taken before the Democratic convention found that about half of Clinton's supporters weren't sold on Obama. Some already were supporting McCain.
Those Clinton supporters who strongly back abortion rights are unlikely to switch to the McCain-Palin ticket, however. McCain and Palin oppose abortion rights.
The biggest risk is that voters will think Palin is too inexperienced to handle a crisis.
“Palin will face intense scrutiny by the media and by voters who need assurance that she is ready to assume the presidency at a moment's notice, if necessary,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Fordham University.
Perhaps the most telling moment will come when she faces Democrat Joe Biden in the vice presidential debate, a 90-minute face-off Oct. 2 in St. Louis.
As little-known candidates such as Ferraro in 1984 and Dan Quayle in 1988 learned, the debates can challenge the foreign-policy credentials of people who are relatively new to the national stage.