Judith France and her daughter Holly France-Kremin have been torn about their choice for president ever since Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. Now John McCain has made up their minds – but in different ways – by his pick of Sarah Palin, the little-known governor of Alaska, as his Republican running mate.
“It made me like McCain a little more,” said Judith France, 62, of Thornville, Ohio. “They always say he was a maverick, and this made me think, well, he really is. He went all the way to Alaska – there aren't that many people up there, they don't have that many electoral votes – and he picked this person. I know people will say she's inexperienced. But she's been a governor for 20 months. That's more experience than Obama has.”
France-Kremin, 36, who lives nearby in Dublin, an affluent Columbus suburb, likewise has qualms about the seasoning of Obama, a first-term Illinois senator after eight years as a state senator. But she also strongly favors abortion rights, and Palin – more prominently than McCain – does not.
“That sealed my decision,” France-Kremin said. Had the choice been a pro-abortion-rights Republican like Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, she said, “I would have thought about voting for McCain. But now? Absolutely not.” McCain, she charged, “is definitely pandering to the Christian right.”
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Across America, voters who had barely started hashing over Obama's acceptance speech were beginning a new conversation about McCain's unexpected decision to put the first woman on a major party national ticket since Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic vice presidential choice of Walter Mondale in 1984.
The choice is playing out in complicated ways, judging from interviews with dozens of women nationwide.
Some, particularly women leaning toward a Republican ticket or who share Palin's staunch views against abortion, see it as a winning choice that they can happily embrace. But some others, particularly the undecided women McCain is trying to reach, say this is the wrong woman, lacking in experience and on the wrong side of the issues, like the war and the environment, that matter most to them.
Still others said they felt insulted, as if instead of Clinton it had been decided that just any woman politician would do.
Darlene Pace, a 65-year-old corporate accountant and independent voter from southeastern Pennsylvania – which, like Ohio, is an election battleground – voted for Clinton in the Democratic primary last April. Weeks ago, Pace told a caller for The New York Times/CBS News poll that she was undecided about whether to vote for Obama or McCain. It would depend on their vice presidential pick, she said then.
“So I was very disappointed” to learn of McCain's, Pace said Friday, hours after Palin was announced. “No one in my office has any idea about her, and the only comment I'm hearing, which is not good, is that ‘She's a woman, and that's why she was picked.'”
Still, while Pace says she leans toward Obama, she is withholding judgment until she has watched the Republicans' convention this week.
As word of the Palin choice spread, some women said they were intrigued by Palin's unusual last-frontier persona – she is a self-described “hockey mom” and PTA parent with five children, the oldest serving in the Army and the youngest a 4-month-old with Down syndrome. She is also a sportswoman who married her high school sweetheart.
“She's not from these parts, and she's not from Washington, but when you get to know her, you're going to be as impressed as I am,” McCain said Friday in introducing her.
But many see her as intrinsically unfit, an obscure governor from the faraway 49th state, with no national standing and no experience on the foreign stage.
A number of women took offense at McCain's elevation of Palin. “That just blew me away,” said Rachel McBride, 52, an independent in Houston. “It's so blatantly a political move – picking a woman at all, and then picking a woman with so little experience when he keeps ramming Obama about his experience.” The result? “I'm definitely leaning toward Obama now,” McBride said.
In choosing Palin, McCain was clearly trying to draw to the Republican column some of the women, a majority of the electorate, who have increasingly been voting for Democrats.
He was also offering an alternative to those voters disappointed that, with Obama's choice of Joe Biden as his running mate, Clinton won't be the nation's first woman president, or vice president.
How it plays out depends on what voters learn about Palin, 44, in the two months before Election Day Nov. 4, and how she performs. Not a single woman interviewed had heard of her before Friday.
At first reaction, many Republican-leaning women, especially, seemed to show new enthusiasm for a Republican ticket that badly needs it against the energy of Obama supporters.
Shopping at a suburban Michigan mall Friday, Cathy Gates, 40, a self-described “football mom” and registered Republican, said the Palin pick, while “a big risk,” “makes me feel a little better” about voting for McCain.
“She does appeal to me,” Gates said. “You would feel she has the same values as you. Having a child with Down syndrome, and being the governor, and she calls herself a ‘hockey mom.' I was impressed. She's very pretty and seems very smart. I hope it works out.”
In some cases, McCain accomplished just what he intended, satisfying those female voters who welcome the prospect of the first woman Republican vice presidential nominee.
“I wish the Democratic Party had the courage” to pick a woman, said Kimberly Myers, a retired transit worker in Pittsburgh who supported Clinton in Pennsylvania's primary, and said she now planned to vote for McCain.
“The fact that she's a working mom will send a message to America that you don't have to choose children over career,” Myers said.
But some women interviewed had concerns about Palin's experience and her fitness to serve should something happen to McCain, 72; just six years ago, she was the mayor of Wasilla, an Anchorage suburb of just over 6,000 people.
They include some of those most likely to support McCain, like Sue Angiers, a 43-year-old business analyst from Macomb County, Mich.
She said she leaned Republican and voted for President Bush. “Hate to say it,” Angiers said of the Palin pick as she left a Babies “R” Us store, “but it makes me less likely to support McCain.”
She had never heard of the Alaska governor and immediately figured McCain was simply angling for Clinton voters. She worried about Palin, being a heartbeat away from a president who has had cancer.
“You don't picture McCain surviving his whole term,” Angiers said, and “with her being so unknown, to be that close to taking over?”