John McCain stunned the political world Friday by unveiling Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, hoping the first woman on a Republican ticket will draw disaffected Democrats and independents while countering Barack Obama's message of change.
In picking a little-known, 44-year-old, first-term governor with scant foreign policy experience, McCain immediately faced questions about whether she would be qualified to occupy the Oval Office if something happened to McCain, who turned 72 Friday.
But the Arizona senator said Palin is a reformer who is “exactly who I need – she's exactly who this country needs – to help me fight the same old Washington politics of ‘me first and country second.'”
McCain renewed his claim to be the “original maverick” in American politics by passing over prospects with more experience and with far more time stumping for him, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was the overwhelming favorite of GOP convention delegates.
McCain's introduction of Palin to 15,000 supporters at Wright State University's arena on Friday was the biggest event of his campaign so far, the morning after more than 84,000 people in Denver and a TV audience of more than 38 million nationally watched Obama accept the Democratic nomination.
Palin described herself as “just your average hockey mom in Alaska” when she embarked on a public career that began in 1992 on the local council of Wasilla and culminated in her election in 2006 as Alaska's youngest and first female governor.
A mother of five, she appealed Friday to the 18 million voters who supported Hillary Clinton over Obama during the Democratic primaries, asserting that her candidacy gives women another chance to make history.
“It turns out the women of America aren't finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all,” Palin said.
The McCain campaign has incessantly attacked Obama, a 47-year-old first-term U.S. senator, as “not ready to lead,” but some political analysts said the choice of someone younger with less tenure in their current office undercut the experience argument. Her selection also contrasted markedly with Obama's pick a week ago of Sen. Joe Biden, 65, who was elected to the Senate at 29.
The McCain campaign, in announcing the choice, made only one reference to Palin's national security credentials: her leadership, as governor, of Alaska's National Guard.
Introducing Palin, McCain focused instead on what he described as Palin's record as a tenacious fighter.
“She's fought oil companies and party bosses and do-nothing bureaucrats and anyone who puts their interests before the people of whom she swore an oath to serve,” McCain said.
Palin also highlighted her reformist impulses. “I didn't get into government to do the safe and easy things,” she told the crowd. “Politics isn't just a game of competing interests and clashing parties. The people of America expect us to seek public office and to serve for the right reasons. And the right reason is to challenge the status quo and to serve the common good.”
In addition to passing over Romney, McCain had considered Minnesota's governor, Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
GOP strategists have said all four of the men presented problems that caused McCain to reject them: Romney's attacks on McCain during the primaries could have been used against the ticket. Lieberman and Ridge favor abortion rights and were opposed by many Republicans. Pawlenty, a close friend of McCain, also had a low national profile and didn't offer the historical resonance of Palin; she is the second woman on a major party presidential ticket, after Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.
McCain hopes the selection of Palin will limit any boost in support for Obama after the Democratic National Convention this week.
In addition to trying to attract disaffected Clinton supporters, the McCain campaign hopes that Palin will also energize the Republican Party's base. She is popular with GOP conservatives because she is a deeply religious Christian, is an avid hunter who supports gun rights, and is strongly opposed to abortion, underscored by her decision to give birth this year to Trig, who has Down syndrome. She learned of the condition when she was four months pregnant.
Another of her five children, son Track, enlisted in the Army last Sept. 11 and is headed to Iraq, she said.
Clinton, who came so close to being the first major-party female presidential candidate, said in a statement: “We should all be proud of Gov. Sarah Palin's historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Sen. McCain. While their policies would take America in the wrong direction, Gov. Palin will add an important new voice to the debate.”