Americans get to know once-obscure Alaska governor

AP>Doug Watts, a painter from Phoenix, watched in spite of himself. There was Sarah Palin on television, and he found himself mesmerized.

"I was flipping channels and stuff and when she finally came on I'm like, 'I'm not going to watch this.' And then I sat there and 15 minutes go by and a little bit more," Watts said. "She seemed like she was sincere. She's the new face."

Just a week ago, Palin was little known outside Alaska. Now she finds herself the most debated and dissected person in the nation. After a dizzying crash course on her life and her family, the emerging picture is riveting to many Americans, perplexing to others.

Her introduction to the Lower 48 culminated Wednesday night with her speech to the Republican National Convention. It predictably roused the delegates and captivated many TV viewers still getting acquainted with the unfamiliar political figure tapped by John McCain as his running mate.

Saturation media coverage has already made Palin's biography part of political lore: Self-styled hockey mom with five children; wife and hunting partner of a snowmobiling oil field worker; high school basketball star and beauty pageant finalist; PTA activist and mayor; and finally, governor willing to take on the oil industry and kingpins of her own Republican Party.

There's a dose of melodrama to her family life - the infant son with Down syndrome, the 17-year-old daughter pregnant but unmarried, the rift with an in-law that has spawned a legislative investigation. Palin has provided endless fodder for the blogosphere, grist for late-night TV gags and multiple topics for gossip magazines.

"Sarah Palin's Dark Secrets" read one National Enquirer cover headline.

Her many newfound admirers have reveled both in her role as mother and in her "Sarah Barracuda" image of toughness.

"This woman who knows how to look down the barrel of a gun and gut an animal in the wilderness is not afraid that she'll break her nail when she punches some deserving opponent right between the eyes in a political brawl," said Sandy Froman, a former president of the National Rifle Association.

But Ellen Bravo, a Milwaukee author and activist who advocates on behalf of working women, voiced doubts about Palin that many feminists share.

McCain "is trying to pass off Gov. Palin as a career mom who knows the difficulties of balancing job and family - hoping women won't notice the ticket's opposition to every measure that would ease those difficulties, from expanding family leave to paid sick days to equal pay," Bravo said.

Karen Button, a freelance writer from Anchorage, said Alaskans were proud of the attention Palin had brought to their state but also less enthusiastic about her governorship now than earlier in her term.

"She's not always that easy to get along with," Button said. "If you don't see things her way, she doesn't have a lot of patience for that.

"She has a good image, she looks good on television, she knows how to deliver a speech," Button said. "But what's disturbing to me is that it's all about image right now. Let's look deeper."

At Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix, in the heart of McCain country, Katie Lahaye, 23, discussed the Palin phenomenon Thursday at the Three Dog Bakery, where she works.

"I was a little shocked just because nobody knew anything about her," she said. "So I was a little bit eager to learn things about her and how her family is."

She ticks off some of those things: "A mom of five is ... wow. And going from, you know, the parent-teacher thing all the way up is just amazing."

Prior to the speech, all Lahaye thought of Palin was "that she's a real person; that she's got real problems. Everyday people problems."

But after watching the speech: "It was shock and awe ... I'm just very excited."

Watts, the Phoenix painter, was touching up a shopping mall bannister. He had been leaning toward Obama before Palin's speech - now he's undecided.

"I really, really didn't care too much about McCain ... I was iffy about him, you know? But now I have a different thought," Watts said. "I'm thinking, I don't see Barack being able to pull it out now, because she was pretty impressive."

Robert Dweck, 56, manages an antiques shop in Miami Beach and is a registered Democrat. He supported Hillary Clinton and has been hesitant to commit to Obama. But Thursday, after hearing Palin speak, he was a bit more sure.

"I thought it was a pretty strong speech, she spoke very clearly, and it had a good message," he said. "But I think the fact that she's very young and, if anything was to happen to McCain, for his age, I don't think that would be good for the nation."

At Navy Pier in Chicago, participants in the 22nd Annual Entrepreneurial Woman's Conference had mixed views. Julie Casserly, a certified financial planner, watched Palin's speech and liked what she saw - to the extent that she'll now look more closely at McCain.

"She seems to be very real and authentic in what she was communicating," she said. "You could just tell it came from the heart."

Kenyetta Jackson, 40, chief financial officer for Chicago's Interfaith House, which assists homeless people recovering from illness or injuries, thought the speech was "fabulous."

But she said McCain is not her choice and doesn't agree with Palin's stand on the issues. "She's a little too conservative for my taste - her views on abortion and gun control."

In Hamburg, Pa., some patrons at Cabela's hunting and fishing superstore said Palin's speech had changed their outlook on the campaign.

Judy Walck, 65, a Democrat who voted for Clinton in the primary, said she was undecided until she heard Palin. Now she's for McCain.

"It's not about her as a woman, it's about her as a person who can handle herself in that kind of situation," said Walck. "She doesn't say, 'I'm a woman, help me out.' She says, 'I'm not afraid to fight for what is right.'"

Vinny Gerchman, 64, was shopping at Cabela's with her husband, Leroy.

A Republican, Vinny said that before the speech she was undecided. Now she's firmly in the McCain camp, and deeply impressed by Palin.

"It's mind-boggling that in one speech, she won over everybody, or at least most people."

Vinny, who was a stay-at-home mom, initially had reservations when she heard Palin had five children.

"It just struck me as how can you go out and leave five kids? ... That's still bothering me. Who's there for them? But then, that's the world today. But then seeing her, she's probably capable of doing it, and probably has lots of help, which most of us don't have."

In liberal San Francisco - where Obama made his notorious reference to bitter small-town voters clinging to guns and religion - several voters depicted Palin's nomination as pandering to women and religious conservatives.

Bob Armstrong, who attends a Methodist church, was concerned that Palin's religious beliefs might be used for political ends.

"Evangelicals have had unprecedented access to the White House in the last eight years, and Palin would bring more of that," he said.

Armstrong, who was exhibiting his paintings to tourists in Union Square, said his teenage daughters also were unimpressed by Palin.

"It's insulting to women I know that someone with such limited experience would be selected on the basis of her gender," he said. "It's a cynical move - an act of inspiration and desperation both."

"I admire the fact that she can field dress a moose, but that doesn't qualify her to lead this country," Armstrong said.