WASHINGTON - Gov. Sarah Palin will be the first to admit that it might be a stretch for a hockey mom from Alaska to be considered for the No. 2 spot on Sen. John McCain's presidential ticket.
But there's an undeniable national buzz surrounding the first-term governor, seen by many Republicans both within Alaska and outside the state as a fresh, new face to represent the party's future. The vice presidency may be far-fetched, but the hype has only helped Palin's future political prospects - and Alaska's reputation.
"This happens almost every cycle, that the great mentioner starts spinning all sorts of names, some of which are more realistic than others," said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University who has written a book on the vice presidency. "Even for somebody who doesn't end up getting selected, it never hurts to get mentioned as a candidate for national office."
Palin is quick to note that she has not spoken to McCain or other national Republican leaders about the prospect. But it certainly came up when she was in Washington two weeks ago for a meeting of the National Governors Association. There, she rubbed elbows with other governors whose names have been bandied about for VP: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.
Everyone treated it lightly, Palin said, including a former Texas governor who himself made the transition to the White House.
"We all had a meeting with President Bush and he said, 'Look at all these vice presidents sitting here,'" Palin said in an interview last week. "Because Pawlenty was sitting next to me, and then Janet Napolitano was sitting on my other side."
Ultimately, Palin said, she understands that while flattering, the buzz is less about her than it is about what she represents to the Republican Party.
"I recognize that any of the buzz surrounds the fact that I happen to fit a demographic that is appealing to the ticket right now," Palin said. "That's the reality. Again, I happen to fit a demographic at a time that the Republican Party needs to get with it and change and progress and allow others to be a part of public service. It's gender, it's age, it's kind of the maverick being from the outside. It's a combination of things."
The hype can probably be traced to the Web site of a 21-year-old college senior majoring in political science at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Adam Brickley, a political buff who will graduate in May, started a "Draft Sarah Palin for Vice President" blog last year and has relentlessly promoted the idea ever since.
Brickley has never been to Alaska or met Palin. But while researching potential vice presidents, he stumbled on Palin and thought she would be a good No. 2 to just about all of the major Republican candidates in the race at the time.
"She's somebody who can really connect with the conservative base," he said.
While Brickley is a little breathless in his support for Palin, he is careful not to dwell on her beauty-queen looks. And he will chastise those who wax too poetic about her appearance.
"I don't think that it's a dignified approach to politics," Brickley said. "I really discourage the 'America's-hottest-governor' rhetoric, because frankly, I think it's demeaning."
The "Draft Palin" movement picked up momentum in more mainstream media, including a column last summer by Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. Others followed, including talk over the past couple of weeks from conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
Palin hasn't let any of it go to her head, said her friend Kris Perry, who ran her campaign and now runs the governor's Anchorage office.
"She has not changed in the slightest, she has not let it change her a bit," Perry said. "She does what she does, for all the right reasons. She truly has a heart for Alaska."
Not everyone believes the Palin hype, especially the state's senior Republican, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Stevens had little to say when asked why he thought Palin was being talked about as a vice-presidential nominee.
"Obviously she wants to be one," he said. "Other than that, I don't know."
Yet a lot of people like Palin's story. They like that she took on established political figures and won, said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster based in Washington, D.C. When people think of Alaska now, Conway said, it's not "bridges-to-nowhere or whether or not to drill for oil."
"Enter the governor, and she is literally a breath of fresh air, but she's somebody who seems to be serving because she's committed to all of this," Conway said.
McCain is probably months away from a choice, but there's already plenty of speculation about whether he would look for a woman or a minority to offer voters a historic Republican choice, too. And because of his age, many people have suggested that McCain, who will turn 72 this summer, will probably need to pick someone younger.
That may lead McCain to choose someone more like Palin, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"I certainly think it puts women and people of color more in the mix and makes it really something that's going to be considered and talked about in a real way," Walsh said. "It will certainly be part of the conversation in a way that it has never been before."
It should be, said Katherine Aiken, a historian who has studied the role of women in politics in the West and who serves as dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at Palin's alma mater, the University of Idaho.
It would "make a statement for Republicans" for McCain to consider someone like Palin, Aiken said. "I think it would take attention away from the age issue, I think it would demonstrate that he has the ability to look across these gender barriers. I think it would give him a more contemporary look."
But the three electoral votes Palin would bring from Alaska won't put McCain over the top on Election Day, and as a Westerner himself, McCain is likely to look toward other regions for a vice presidential candidate who can woo voters away from the Democratic candidate.
There's also the presidential factor. A vice president who might replace a president needs to have a presidential bearing, Goldstein said.
"Ultimately, for Governor Palin or anybody else to be picked, I think they have to demonstrate that this person is really presidential, that they have what it takes to serve as president," Goldstein said.
Palin may not have that yet, Conway said, and McCain may want someone more familiar to a national audience. But Conway points out that Sen. Barack Obama wasn't well-known nationally until he spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention. Palin could do the same at the Republican convention, Conway suggests.
"She would immediately earn a ton of media coverage and people would be buzzing about who-is-this-woman," Conway said. "I think a similar situation could happen for Gov. Palin, meaning she could be introduced to a national audience in a similar way this summer in Minneapolis."
The Republican National Committee hasn't announced who will be speaking at the convention, but like all GOP governors, Palin is on the guest list.
As for her recent news that she is pregnant with her fifth child, Palin said it never played a part in any thoughts she has entertained about a hypothetical vice presidential bid.
"I'm very confident that a pregnant woman should not and doesn't have to be prohibited from doing anything, including running for vice president," Palin said. "Or working in the home or out of the home. The world is our oyster also, whether carrying a baby or not."
And in recent weeks, Palin has made it clear that she might someday consider a run for national office. When pressed, though, she wouldn't talk about specifics, including her thoughts on a potential run for Congress.
"Eventually, years down the road, perhaps," she said. "It's appealing, because where I am right now in life, I believe that I can make contributions to the state and put the state in a good position to contribute more. And after my term or terms as governor, and after you're termed out, I can see a desire to, in a different venue, continue to try to help my state."
When it comes to the vice presidency, though, President Bush may have put the whole matter in blunt perspective Wednesday while he was endorsing McCain at the White House after the Arizona senator clinched the Republican nomination.
"People don't vote for vice presidents, as much as I hate to say that for those who have been candidates for vice president," Bush said. "They're going to vote for who gets to sit inside that Oval Office. ... that's what the race is all about."
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