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for people who care about the West

A Western woman redefines the presidential race

 

In one decision, John McCain has reshuffled the election deck -- especially in the West.

His pick of Idaho native Sarah Palin for vice president means McCain has a good chance to win Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and maybe even Colorado, which were all leaning toward Barack Obama. If she doesn't screw up, builds on her great personal story, continues to highlight her maverick style and finds a way to energize social conservatives without making the election about abortion or intelligent design, she can also help him hold the South and challenge in Wisconsin and Michigan.

I know that's a tall order. Clearly, her selection carries a lot of risks. The biggest risk is that voters will find the two-year governor of Alaska and former mayor of a small town unqualified to succeed the 72-year old McCain. But the gun-toting University of Idaho graduate will appeal to many Westerners, especially young Westerners, in a way no other pick could have done.

She doesn't like people in Washington, D.C., to tell people in her state what to do. Palin wants to develop her state's natural resources, but she also is worried about climate change -- though she denies that people are the primary agents of it -- and has been taking action to do something about it.

"Sarah Barracuda," as she was nicknamed in high school for her aggressiveness on the basketball court, loves to hunt and fish and even shoots an M16 rifle. Her parents learned that McCain had picked her while they were heading into remote Alaska to hunt caribou. She used to lead the prayers before high school football games, served on the PTA and enjoys watching "first dude" and part-Eskimo husband Todd win snowmobile races. No wonder she and Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter hit it off right away.

When it comes to packaging, she's a mix of Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth. Chenoweth battled both environmentalists and the federal government and famously questioned how salmon could be endangered since you could buy it in a can.

Democrats have regained power in the West for the last eight years in part due to the changing demographics and the Bush administration's top-down decision-making on full-speed-ahead oil and gas development. Republicans haven't really had a new, young Western face to counter rising Democratic stars like Mont. Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Palin may be able to step into that role whether McCain wins or not. Chenoweth was never able to shake off her image as a radical, but Palin already has proven her ability to govern toward the middle. She opposes  same-sex marriage, yet among her first acts in office was to veto a bill blocking health benefits for gay partners of public employees. She's got to explain her involvement in the resignation of Alaska's state patrol chief and her flip-flop on the famous "bridge to nowhere" project. Eventually, she's got to show she understands the complexities of a diverse nation.

She isn't going to attract many Clinton supporters because of her pro-life views. But she gives conservatives who weren't too interested in McCain a reason to get out and vote. And if she doesn't implode, Palin could hurt moderate Democrats in Idaho, such as 1st District House candidate Walt
Minnick and Senate hopeful Larry LaRocco.

Still, she's got to demonstrate that, as the Republicans keep telling us, she's up to the task of leading the world in a very dangerous time. But she already has developed a huge fan base -- the "Palinistas." They identify with a woman who first got interested in the Iraq war when she learned her 19-year-old son, Track, was going to be deployed in the U.S. Army there. The news that her 17-year-old daughter is having a baby out of wedlock seems to add to the feeling that she faces the same struggles most families face. Not everyone is a Palinista, of course: Palin's mother-in-law, for example, is said to be an Obama fan, though maybe not as much as Gov. Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria.

For many voters, the huge issues of our time probably don't mean that much until they affect them personally. Now, these voters have a candidate who shares their perspective.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the environmental writer for IdahoStatesman.com in Boise, Idaho.