Many voters say pregnancy private matter

Some say Palin's predicament humanizes her and may draw a few sympathy votes

Posted: Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Rebecca Horvath was an undecided voter before the news broke about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her 17-year-old unmarried daughter's pregnancy.

Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

The Tennessee mother of two is exactly the kind of voter who will decide this presidential election. And the news has not changed her views one iota.

"This has nothing to do with the campaign," says Horvath, 32, who as both a woman and a self-described Reagan Democrat is in two groups being wooed in this fiercely contested race. "That's been my thought from the beginning. Campaign issues are health care, education, the Iraq war - not a candidate's daughter being pregnant."

Just as Sen. John McCain's surprise choice of Palin made headlines a few days earlier, the revelation of her daughter's pregnancy has sent shock waves across the political landscape - and spawned countless Web references to "Juno from Juneau," a play on the name of last year's popular movie about a pregnant teen.

But what do voters really think? Will the pregnancy reflect negatively on Palin or on the man who chose her? Or will Palin's predicament instead humanize her and draw some sympathy votes?

Interviews across the country by The Associated Press on Tuesday found many said it should be a private matter. Yet some of these same people wondered whether Palin could be an effective vice president and deal with the obligations of parenting both her own and her children's children.

Back when teen star Jamie Lynn Spears revealed she was pregnant at 16, chatter centered on her mother - more famous for her older daughter, Britney - and whether she was somehow to blame.

But in Palin's case, voters of all political stripes expressed the view that parental guidance only goes so far.

"As a parent, you cannot be totally responsible for your child," noted Kurt Farrell, a 71-year-old Atlanta resident. "This is not a crime, and it doesn't mean she did not do her job. You can't guide your child 100 percent."

The story, he said, is simply "not our business."

Farrell, who is originally from Trinidad and is a staunch Barack Obama supporter, added he was certain Obama wouldn't use Palin's personal situation to gain political leverage, and indeed Obama has said forcefully that he believes candidates' children are off limits.

But one supporter of the Illinois senator felt the information was fair game. "It gives you insight about her," said Joanell Williams, a 37-year-old high school teacher from Hahnville, La., who fled Hurricane Gustav and was visiting relatives in Atlanta.

"What I keep asking myself is, if you can't take care of your own household, how can you take care of the nation?" said Williams. "If she is so strong on conservative values why wasn't she able to get that through at home? My mother raised seven daughters ... None of us came home pregnant."

Others expressed the view that the pregnancy says more about McCain than Palin. Though his campaign says he knew about the pregnancy beforehand, questions persist about how thoroughly McCain vetted the candidate and how much interaction they had before he announced the surprise selection last Friday.

And the question is an important one, says political scholar Steven Cohen, because the choice of a running mate is a candidate's first major presidential decision.

Whereas Obama appeared to take the long road to selecting a VP, naming a committee that included Caroline Kennedy, McCain by contrast "appears like he was a student cramming at the last minute for an exam," said Cohen, a professor of public administration at Columbia University.

Wendell Eubanks, a 46-year-old pastor from Chicago, had his doubts about Palin. "If I'm running for office, I have to lead by example," said Eubanks, a Democrat who has a Sunday gospel show on the radio. "How can you lead the country, if you can't lead your own family?"

Others argued that while Palin's problems show she's a mother with challenges like anyone else, she still has to answer for her views on sex education. She has said she opposes funding for such programs.

"No sex education in the classroom has brought results in unwanted pregnancies," said Michael Allen, a 54-year-old epidemiologist in Harrisburg, Pa., who supports Obama. As for McCain, Allen said, the episode shows that he "made a political decision without thinking much about the actual consequences."

There was also the question of whether Palin, a mother of five, should consider taking on a job like vice president given two current demands on her as a mother: a baby with Down syndrome, and a teenage daughter soon to give birth.

Claire Dent, a housewife from Marietta, Ga., said that as an opponent of abortion rights, she applauded Bristol Palin's decision to keep her baby. But she was "a little squeamish," nonetheless, at the Alaska governor seeking the vice presidency.

"Only she knows what she's capable of," said Dent, 32, a Republican. "I just know that it wouldn't be something I would do."

One feeling seemed unanimous among voters interviewed: Sympathy for Bristol Palin herself, who surely didn't seek the kind of publicity she's being subjected to.

"If I were her ... I wouldn't want to be used as an example of how people might see my mother," said Leslie Jacobs, 20, a student in the Dayton, Ohio, suburb of Oakwood who is undecided in the race. "She's not the one who is running with John McCain."

Chicagoan Jean Kohn, a self-described "proud black Republican," said that while Bristol Palin's pregnancy should have no place in the election, her mother's honesty was admirable - a sentiment that was not purely Republican.

"I think just the fact that she's supporting her daughter in her decision is admirable and commendable," said Obama supporter Damita Coats, 39, a mother of two young children in Bowie, Md.

In downtown Los Angeles, accountant Jacqueline Benyamini said she was much more concerned with the problems of unemployment, terrorism and homelessness than a personal issue with a candidate's child.

"I couldn't care less about their personal lives," said the 40-year-old mother of two, an independent leaning toward McCain. "Everyone has baggage." With her own boys, ages 7 and 10, she said, "I'm hoping I'll teach them all the right values of being good."

But, Benyamini added: "You can't put a leash on your kids forever."

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