'Maverick' McCain pulls off surprise

Sarah Palin was a hockey mom, small-town mayor and rising Republican star in Alaska in 2003 when she ran afoul of her party's establishment over ethics reform and was cast into the political wilderness.

But she came charging back as an ethics crusader to win the governor's office in 2006 and has remained one of the most popular local politicians in America even as she continued to take on such powerful figures as the oil companies and the leaders of her own state party.

Palin, 44, has been the Joan of Arc of Alaska politics, charging into battle against long odds on such big local issues as oil taxes and construction of a natural gas pipeline – only to see her opposition crumble.

Though fearless in choosing the outsider's path in politics, she remains relatively untested as a campaigner, a politician and as a two-year governor. And even as she drew attention nationally as a potential vice presidential nominee in recent months, she has come under withering criticism at home from business-minded Republicans who consider her a misguided populist and an intellectual lightweight.

In one-on-one settings, her relaxed manner has contributed to her popularity – in a state of 670,000 residents, where such contacts are not only possible but essential for political success.

She was born in Idaho and came to Alaska when she was 3 months old. She grew up in the town of Wasilla, a now-sprawling town an hour north of Anchorage, where her father, Chuck Heath, was a teacher and coach. One of her most formative experiences, she has said, was leading her high school basketball team to the 1982 state championship.

She went on to study journalism and political science in college, graduating from the University of Idaho in 1987. Along the way, she competed in the Miss Alaska contest after being chosen Miss Wasilla 1984.

She grew up hunting with her father, whose living room wall is densely populated with trophies and antlers. She is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. Her favorite meal, she said during her gubernatorial race, is moosemeat stew after a day of snowmobiling.

She eloped in 1988 with her high school sweetheart, Todd Palin. He is a commercial fisherman, an oil field worker, a member of the United Steelworkers and an Alaska native.

He's worked 20 years in a job on Alaska's North Slope for BP. He is also a four-time winner of the Iron Dog snowmachine race from Anchorage to Nome and back along the Iditarod Trail.

Sarah Palin made her way into local politics on the City Council in 1992 and then ran for mayor as an agent of change. Though she established a reputation as a tax-fighter, she actually increased infrastructure spending on roads and sewers for the town, helped by the increase in sales tax revenues coming to the booming commercial hub. She has had the same luck as governor – a fiscal conservative in charge of a wealthy government, this time because of high oil prices.

Palin finished a strong second in the 2002 primary for lieutenant governor and was being groomed by the party for higher office when she ran afoul of state Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich. They both had seats on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission – appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski, the Republican she would later depose. She accused Ruedrich of political chicanery and eventually resigned in frustration. Ruedrich was forced to resign the job as well, though he remains head of the state party.

In 2006, she knocked off Murkowski and then Democratic former Gov. Tony Knowles in a campaign that drew on grass-roots support, relying on neighbors and friends for staff rather than veterans of big-time campaigns.

She had strong support from social conservatives and often speaks of her religious faith. The Palins have five children, including their first-born, Track, who enlisted in the Army on Sept. 11, 2007. Track Palin is 18 and stationed now at Fort Wainwright in Alaska with the Stryker Brigade. His mother said he is preparing for a deployment to Iraq. They also have three daughters – Bristol, Willow and Piper.

The newest member of the family, a son, Trig, was born four months ago after a pregnancy that Palin kept secret for seven months. Trig was born with Down syndrome, which the Palins had discovered through testing.

As governor, she has not pushed any big agenda items of social conservatives. Her focus has been on raising oil taxes – long suppressed by oil-friendly legislators, the taxes were seen as ridiculously low once oil prices started rising – and on launching construction of a $40 billion natural gas pipeline from North Slope oilfields. Palin took on the oil producers there, saying they had been dragging their feet on a gas line, and she pushed the legislature to pass a bill authorizing an independent company to build the line.

An ongoing corruption scandal in the legislature over influence of the former oilfield services company Veco helped Palin force change in the Juneau state capitol. That scandal has now spread to include Alaska's two longtime powers in Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. Palin has kept distance between herself and those Republican icons and backed ethics reform measures that passed the legislature.

She has received criticism from some quarters, including conservative radio talk show hosts in Anchorage and rental car executive Andrew Halcro, a former state representative who ran as an independent in the last governor's race and features almost-daily criticism of her on his blog. Critics call her naive, a panderer in her economic populism, and reckless in her dealing with the vital oil industry.

But at a time when state coffers are spilling over with new oil revenues, Palin has remained popular with voters, recently pushing through a $1,200 per person “rebate” to help with high fuel costs.

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