WASHINGTON - Democrats are probably cobbling together the campaign ad right now: "John McCain's running mate is for big oil and against the environment," a somber voice intones as cute baby polar bears scamper across the screen.
If McCain hoped to stop Democrats from getting much mileage out of the oil issue in this presidential election, he picked the wrong vice presidential candidate.
His choice of Gov. Sarah Palin comes from a state whose lifeblood is oil. Palin favors opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, something McCain opposes. Her family even gets one of its paychecks from the oil industry: Palin's husband, Todd Palin, earned $46,790 last year as a facility operator for BP Alaska in Prudhoe Bay.
Oil and natural gas and the jobs they create are part and parcel of life in Alaska: "If you are not for opening ANWR, in the state of Alaska, you couldn't get elected dogcatcher," says former Alaska state Rep. Ray Metcalfe, a Republican-turned-Democrat who supports Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and anticipates Palin's critics will probably zero in on the oil drilling issue.
But that live-off-the-land culture is largely foreign to voters in the lower 48 states, who are paying high gas prices without the benefit of the oil royalty dividend checks that Alaskans get each year. Eligible Alaskans received $1,654 each in 2007.
Palin is so pro-energy that she actually praised Obama earlier this month for calling on the United States to work with the Canadian government to build an Alaska natural gas pipeline.
"I am pleased to see Sen. Obama acknowledge the huge potential Alaska's natural gas reserves represent in terms of clean energy and sound jobs," Palin said in a press release put out by her office, though she wasn't entirely in favor of Obama's energy plan. She questioned his proposal to impose a windfall profits tax on oil companies to provide a taxpayer rebate, saying such taxes prevent oil companies from investing more in domestic production.
Democrats could also accuse Palin of picking on polar bears.
Palin opposes the Bush administration's decision to list polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Alaska sued Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne earlier this month to try to overturn his decision.
Palin argues there isn't enough evidence to support a listing, and she fears it will harm oil and gas development in prime polar bear habitat off Alaska's northern and northwestern coasts.
Ethics could be another issue. Palin has fashioned herself a good-government maverick in the style of McCain, but Democrats could go after her on that, too.
The Legislature is investigating her firing of the state public safety commissioner. A legislative oversight committee wants to know if the commissioner was dismissed because he refused to fire a trooper who went through a messy divorce from Palin's sister. The investigation is expected to wrap up around election time.
Campaign contributions Palin collected earlier in her political career could also provide fodder for Democratic campaign ads, tying her to an Alaska Republican political scandal from which she has tried to distance herself.
Palin raised at least $4,500 for her unsuccessful 2002 campaign for lieutenant governor from executives of VECO Corp., an oil services contractor at the heart of a massive influence-peddling investigation. Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens is accused of accepting more than $250,000 in home renovations and gifts from VECO executives and failing to disclose them on his annual financial statements; the senator says he is innocent.
Palin received $500 each from nine VECO executives in December 2001, including then-CEO Bill Allen, who last year pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy, bribery and tax charges and agreed to cooperate in the corruption investigation.