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At first glance, there appears to be much to admire in Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Sen. John McCain's choice as his vice presidential running mate. Just 44 years old, she is a talented and upbeat person who excelled in basketball and beauty pageants, music and moose hunting.
Since entering politics she has shown independence and a clear moral compass. On Alaska's oil and gas commission, she blew the whistle on a fellow Republican's conflict of interest. Her 2006 campaign for the state's highest office began as an insurrection against her party's old guard. In choosing her, McCain said that Palin's experience equips her to help "shake up Washington."
There is no surprise in the fact that Palin is a conservative on the issues that matter most to the Republican Party's base. She is an opponent of abortion and a particularly outspoken advocate of letting oil and gas companies drill on public lands - including Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a position that not even McCain, who favors offshore drilling, has embraced.
But politically, McCain's choice was a stunner. He bypassed safer choices, such as Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in favor of a relative unknown.
Now McCain can say he is giving voters a chance to make history by electing the first woman to be vice president. He also is hoping Palin's down-to-earth "hockey mom" persona will appeal to those working-class Democrats, especially women, who voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the primary - though many supporters of abortion rights may be insulted by that proposition.
But the most important question McCain should have asked himself about Palin was not whether she could help him win the presidency. It was whether she is qualified and prepared to serve as president should anything prevent him from doing so. This would have been true for any presidential nominee, and it was especially crucial that McCain, 72, get this choice right. If he is elected, he will be the oldest man ever to serve a first term in the White House.
In this regard, count us among the puzzled and the skeptical. Not long ago, no less a Republican strategist than Karl Rove belittled Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine as a potential running mate for Barack Obama, noting that picking him would appear "intensely political" because Kaine's experience consisted of only three years as governor preceded by the mayoralty of Richmond, which Rove called "not a big town."
Using Rove's criteria, Palin would not fare well. Her executive experience consists of less than two years as governor of her sparsely populated state, plus six years as mayor of Wasilla (pop. 8,471). Absorbed in Alaska's unique energy and natural resource issues, she has barely been heard from in the broader national debates over economic policy and health care. Above all, she has no record on foreign policy and national security - including terrorism, which McCain posits as the top challenge facing America and the world. Once the buzz over Palin's nomination dies down, the hard questions about her will begin. The answers will reflect on her qualifications - and on McCain's judgment as well.