US election: How Sarah Palin hooked the nation

As Sarah Palin gives a barnstorming speech, Philip Sherwell charts the incredible rise of a small-town mum from Alaska .


The flashing neon sign outside the Great Valley Used Tyres and Thrift Store next to Alaska's main north-south highway captured the exuberant mood in Wasilla. "Sarah Palin, U Rock Girl!!!!" it proclaimed, proudly and boldly.

A new celebrity was born in American politics on Wednesday night. Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the former mayor of this unprepossessing frontier town, had just delivered an electrifying speech that reshaped the race for the White House.

John McCain's surprise pick as his vice-presidential running mate on the Republican ticket had disappeared from view for the previous two days, holed up in a hotel room with the party's leading speechwriters as a slew of negative stories swirled around her. The gun-toting, moose-hunting, 44-year-old mother of five emerged not just rocking but triumphant and took the fight to Barack Obama, skewering the Democratic candidate for the nation's top job with a series of withering "red meat" attacks.

In Wasilla, an hour's drive north of Anchorage, friends and neighbours descended on Tailgaters Sports Bar and Grill, hoping to see their former home-town beauty queen ignite the Republican convention. They were not disappointed, as the ecstatic barrage of whoops, whistles and hollers of "Go Sarah!" testified. "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?" she asked the delegates gathered in Minnesota. It was a new line for a national audience, but not in Tailgaters. "The lipstick!" they chanted in delighted unison.

The Tailgaters crowd punctuated her speech with cheers, applause and fists pumping the air. "That's our girl," said Valerie Rodrigue, 48, as she wiped away tears of pride and joy. "The American people now know why we love her. She couldn't have done any better. It's a privilege to share her with the rest of the US. She's a straight-shooter who speaks from the heart," added the road construction supervisor.

Dean Messmer, 64, a boat dealer, hailed her defiant frontier spirit. "A lot of people who don't know Sarah were wondering whether she was up to the job. Well, here's your answer. She's a people's politician, a true populist who makes things happen. She doesn't claim to be the most experienced on world affairs. But she'll learn fast. She always does."

Mrs Palin was virtually unknown outside the "Last Frontier" state before Senator McCain stunned America last Friday with his choice. And a spate of controversies and bad news over the next few days had seen many write off his decision as a potentially fatal gamble.

But she eased those fears with a barnstorming performance. As she soaked up the standing ovation, she was joined on stage by her part-Eskimo, snowmobile-racing husband, her five children – including a son about to deploy to Iraq, a 17-year-old pregnant daughter and a baby with Down's syndrome – and the father of that unborn first grandchild. It was a remarkable spectacle.

If politicians are shaped by their roots, then Mrs Palin – who reportedly got her first passport only last year – is truly a product of Wasilla, a scrappy town set in a valley of outstanding natural beauty. The term "redneck" is a badge of honour in these parts. Contemplating her options if politics turned sour, Mrs Palin once registered the business name Rouge Cou, using a literal French translation of the phrase.

Mrs Palin's political future may also be determined here, rather than on the campaign trail, as the media and Democratic "oppo" researchers descend on Alaska to dissect her personal life and record in office. That operation will only intensify after her bravura showing; the Obama campaign is likely to remove the gloves when it comes to handling her now. Since Friday, they have largely held off direct political attacks, wary of accusations of condescension or sexism and hopeful that she might "crash and burn" of her own accord. That phase, it now seems certain, is over.

She has already been buffeted by claims that she abused her power in an effort to have her former brother-in-law sacked as a state trooper, following an ugly family dispute, and been forced to reveal that daughter Bristol is pregnant by her high-school boyfriend. The supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer, then delivered more salacious accusations, claiming Mrs Palin had an affair with a partner of her husband Todd. The McCain campaign issued an immediate and angry denial and threatened to sue but it was a bruising introduction to the rough and tumble of national politics.

Democratic strategists and Washington media pundits have meanwhile decried her lack of experience. If this week is any indication, such criticism will be just the ammunition she needs as she presents herself as the "small-town America" candidate in November's showdown. For despite the prim librarian looks, Mrs Palin has demonstrated a steely take-no-prisoners approach during her career, edging aside her party's old guard in Alaska in her rapid rise to the governor's mansion from a humble mayoral office.

Although technically a city, Wasilla, a close-knit community established in 1917 as the railway terminus for the nearby gold mines and fur trapping outposts, it feels like a suburban sprawl of strip malls and garages, with Alpine chalet-style homes hidden behind thickets of birch and spruce trees. The plethora of churches and taxidermists bear testimony to the "guns and God" foundations of life in Alaska's Bible belt. Mrs Palin's social conservative evangelical beliefs – resolutely opposed to abortion and in favour of teaching intelligent design (a twist on biblical creationism) alongside evolution in schools – are a natural fit.

In the first week of autumn, the wind is already whipping between the jagged peaks of the Talkeetna and Chugach mountain ranges, churning up the waves on Lake Lucille where the Palins have their waterfront home. Secret service agents now block access to the house, but along the lake their small red-and-white seaplane can be seen bobbing on the water. In a state where light aircraft are as common as taxis in major cities, the couple use the plane to go moose hunting, or to fly to Bristol Bay, where they run a commercial fishing business.

The antlers of caribou and moose are Wasilla's preferred form of exterior decoration. At the home of Mrs Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, a 12ft-high mound of antlers stands next to the driveway and dozens more are attached to the wooden garage.

The population has doubled to about 9,000 in less than a decade but there are few secrets – it was already widely known that Bristol was pregnant by her boyfriend, high-school ice-hockey star Levi Johnston. There was certainly no attempt to hide that fact as Mr Johnston joined his new fiancée and the extended Palin clan in St Paul for Wednesday night's festivities. Governor Palin's parents were there. So were Mr Palin's parents, Jim and Faye, even though the Alaska governor backed a rival when her pro-abortion mother-in-law ran to replace her as mayor in 2002. All still live within a few miles of each other.

Sarah Heath arrived here as a young girl when her schoolteacher parents moved from Idaho. She became a basketball star, earning the nickname Sarah Barracuda for her sharp-elbowed, uncompromising style on the court. Political rivals testify that the moniker still applies.

She met her husband Todd, part Yu'kip Eskimo, at school; the couple eloped to save the cost of a wedding. While he worked the oil fields and the fishing waters, she started to raise their family, describing herself as an average "hockey mom" – a mother who took her children to sports sessions after school.

But after a stint on the parent-teacher association, she was elected first as a local councillor and then, in 1996, as mayor, unseating the incumbent on a polarising anti-abortion, pro-gun platform. Within a few months, she had cleared out several key members of staff, including the police chief, and the town librarian quit amid disputed claims that Mrs Palin had discussed removing "socially objectionable" books from the shelves. "She ran on a platform of change and she was true to her word," said Dianne Keller, her successor. "Certain people lost their jobs but that's the nature of the beast."

Mrs Palin was, allies and foes agree, a highly effective advocate for Wasilla's commercial interests – during annual lobbying trips to Washington, she secured millions of dollars of federal money for upgraded rail facilities and a health centre in the so-called government "earmarks" that Mr McCain fiercely criticises.

She was appointed to state-wide office in 2002 on the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and became chairman the next year, earning a reputation as a scourge of waste and corruption willing to take on her own party elite. In 2006, her reputation entrenched as an anti-establishment maverick and reformer, she again overthrew the traditional Republican hierarchy to win the party's nomination for governor before going on to defeat more experienced rivals in the election.

Her husband Todd, meanwhile, happily adapted to what Alaskans call his "First Dude" duties. And since the birth of their fifth child, Trig, with Down's syndrome earlier this year, he has assumed the role of stay-at-home father. Mrs Palin returned to work three days after giving birth. Despite the current "Troopergate" ethics investigation, Governor Palin's popularity rating stands at 80 per cent, the highest for any US governor, and will doubtless soar now.

However, some Alaskans dispute her portrayal as a fearless foe of fiscal excess.

"People will be charmed and impressed by her, but that's not enough to be vice-president of the United States," said Lyda Green, Republican state senate president and fellow Wasilla resident. "Unfortunately, I just don't believe she's ready to handle the international affairs and national finances of this country."

And Andrew Halcro, who ran against her as an independent for governor and first sparked the "Troopergate" controversy in his blog, said: "I've often seen Sarah wow a crowd with her personality but I've never known her wow them with her knowledge."

But such criticisms were given short shrift by the crowd at Tailgaters. Stepping outside to escape the hubbub, Cheryl Metiva, director of the Wasilla chamber of commerce, explained her friend's appeal. "As a person, she's consistent, honest and warm," she said. "As a politician, she's focused, direct and clear. And she's done a tremendous job of balancing her family life and with her public duties. You underestimate her at your peril."

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