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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Second-Guessing the Vice-Presidential Pick

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Gov. Sarah Palin at a campaign stop on Monday in Leesburg, Va.

By ADAM NAGOURNEY

Last week, Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, said that Senator John McCain might now be on the verge of winning Pennsylvania — the mainly Democratic state where Mr. McCain is investing considerable time and energy in these final days of his presidential campaign — had he chosen Mr. Ridge as his running mate.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina and one of Mr. McCain’s closest friends and advisers, has in recent days been quite direct in saying that he counseled Mr. McCain to choose Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut for the second spot. Mr. Lieberman, he said, would have been a breakthrough choice, winning Mr. McCain plaudits and support from independent voters who are weary of partisanship.

Mr. McCain may still win the election. Still, anticipating that he will fall short, the pre-postmortems have already begun, both inside and outside his campaign headquarters. And without question, the biggest one is whether he would have been in a better position today had he not chosen Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running-mate.

The answer, in the view of many Republicans and Democrats, is almost certainly yes.

In choosing Ms. Palin, Mr. McCain and his advisers set aside the traditional criteria for picking a running-mate — such as choosing someone who could deliver a battleground state — in favor of selecting someone who could upend the story line of the campaign. The idea was that Mr. McCain could benefit on several fronts:

¶Ms. Palin’s reformer credentials would buttress his own, and strengthen his ability to run against Washington, which potentially would appeal to moderate and independent voters.

¶Her views on social issues would help mend Mr. McCain’s strained relations with conservatives.

¶And as a woman, she would give Mr. McCain a chance to compete for women voters who had supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and were upset at how she was treated by Senator Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

Now, a week before the election, it seems that only one of those predictions has come true, that Ms. Palin would help Mr. McCain with conservatives.

Fergus Cullen, the Republican chairman of New Hampshire, said he considered her a good pick, all things considered, arguing that she “energizes new and different people.” She still draws huge enthusiastic crowds as she campaigns in Republican areas.

But polls, most recently one conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News, underline the extent to which her standing in the public eye has declined during the campaign — particularly among women and independent voters, the very groups Mr. McCain hoped she would help him with. More than that, there has been a steady increase in the number of people who say she is unqualified to be president, and even some conservative commentators now criticize Mr. McCain’s judgment in choosing her.

Meanwhile, the initial hesitation voiced by the small group who were skeptical — who thought that Ms. Palin was an unknown quantity, largely unvetted, who had the decided disadvantage of never having gone through anything like a national campaign before — has been borne out in this campaign, most recently over the disclosure that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 on clothes and accessories for Ms. Palin and her family. There is clearly tension between the McCain and Palin camps over how she has handled herself, and how the McCain campaign has handled her.

What Mr. Ridge said about how Mr. McCain would have fared in Pennsylvania with him on the ticket might have been impolitic or self-serving; but it is hardly a revolutionary view, and it is shared by, among others, some of Mr. Obama’s top advisers. The race would be very different today if Mr. McCain had Pennsylvania in his column and not the Democrats’.

The argument against selecting Mr. Ridge was that, because he supports abortion rights, he would have further damaged Mr. McCain’s standing with conservatives. But given the stark differences between Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama and the looming prospect of a Democratic sweep in Washington, some Republicans wonder whether conservatives really would have sat out the election just because Mr. McCain’s running mate was a moderate on social issues. Mr. McCain might have been able to portray such a choice as a sign of political independence, and Mr. Ridge’s views on abortion might have won Mr. McCain the hearing from Clinton supporters that the Palin pick once promised.

Mr. McCain also passed over Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who has strong family ties to Michigan, where his father was a long-serving governor. Republicans in Michigan believe that Mr. McCain would not have had to concede Michigan, another Democratic state he once hoped to carry, had the ticket been McCain-Romney.

“I think Romney would have helped in Michigan, Nevada and Colorado, maybe even New Hampshire,” said Saul Anuzis, the Republican state chairman in Michigan.

Mr. Anuzis said that he liked Ms. Palin as a selection, but Mr. Romney would have been better for his state and a few others.

Beyond that, Mr. Romney’s associates argue that his business background would have given Mr. McCain’s ticket some economic ballast that would have been helpful when the financial crisis and its economic aftershocks reshaped the race. Mr. McCain might well be in a stronger position today in Minnesota — yet another state Republicans once hoped to take back from the Democratic ticket — had he chosen its governor, Tim Pawlenty, as his running mate. And associates of Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida, argue that Mr. McCain would not be worrying about that flank had he put Mr. Crist on the ticket.

All of this, of course, is second-guessing, which Mr. McCain and his party can do at leisure after Nov. 4 if indeed he loses the race.

“There may be plenty of time for dissection later, and there are too many R’s doing that now,” said Mr. Cullen, the New Hampshire party chairman.

He put himself in the camp, not of questioning Ms. Palin’s selection, but “of those who question how the McCain team handled Palin after the convention, allowing her public image to get defined by others in a way that may prove permanent, possibly destroying a promising national political figure in vitro.”

Still, if nothing else, Ms. Palin does seem poised to do one thing for Mr. McCain: Deliver him the very Republican state of Alaska, and all three of its Electoral College votes.

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