WASHINGTON - Has Sarah Palin become a liability for John McCain? Since joining his ticket, the overnight political celebrity has seen the shine come off her poll standings and doubts surface among some conservatives once excited about her candidacy.
The governor still draws huge crowds and energizes McCain's drive for the White House. Yet a whirlwind month after he made her his running mate, Palin is starting to seem very, very vulnerable.
A stumbling interview with CBS's Katie Couric last week in which Palin equated her state's proximity to Russia with foreign policy experience may have been her defining moment so far. Now, attention is shifting to her debate Thursday with Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden.
So far, Palin's been a huge hit with conservative and Republican voters, and McCain's frequent campaign-trail companion; but also a candidate largely sheltered from reporters whose few interviews have prompted some Republicans to react defensively and at times with frustration.
"If you only have one or two interviews, the focus goes on those and any mistake is going to be amplified dramatically," Mitt Romney, who lost a bid for the GOP nomination and now supports McCain, said Monday on NBC's "Today" show. "So let her get out there and be herself."
One of Palin's problems has been perceptions of her experience. In an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll conducted during the first half of September, 61 percent said they did not think Palin - governor for less than two years and former small-town mayor - has the right experience to be president. That view has changed little in more recent surveys.
Polls also show Palin's image, while positive overall, has begun to erode. While an NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey in early September showed more people viewing her favorably than unfavorably by 20 percentage points, that gap faded to 6 points by last week. Similarly, her net positive rating in a Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll shrunk from 27 points in early September to 11 points a week ago.
"People have positive things to say about her as a human being," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "But when it comes to the professional element of the job, she just comes up short."
Republicans say Palin is likely to help the GOP with low- and mid-income, culturally conservative voters, who could be pivotal in closely fought, working-class states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"If you look at the states that are really in play, at least here in the upper Midwest, the criticisms that come from the coasts don't play here," said John Truscott, a GOP consultant in Lansing, Mich. "If anything, they infuriate people more."
Palin, 44, was a national unknown until Aug. 29, when McCain stunned the political world by making her his vice presidential running mate. Her addition shook up the presidential race and briefly boosted the Arizona senator into a modest lead in the polls over Democrat Barack Obama, fueled by her freshness, her popularity and maverick reputation back home, her deeply conservative social views and an everywoman appeal helped by her family's compelling story.
"She represents the average American more than anyone else in this election," said Tricia Crabb, 26, a McCain supporter from Hilliard, Ohio. "You want someone to run the country who has the same views as you."
But underscoring how Palin has become a polarizing candidate, most Democrats have strong negative feelings about her.
"She answers questions like a beauty queen," said Obama backer Dawna Attig, 45, of Barre, Vt. "She's an insult to hard-working, intelligent women."
A CBS News-New York Times poll last week showed Palin's unfavorable views rising among women - a group McCain was hoping she'd attract. Underscoring her appeal to lower-earning whites, white women without college degrees view her favorably, 39 percent to 23 percent, while white female college graduates have a negative view, 45 percent to 35 percent.
In the Journal-NBC poll, independents had favorable views of Palin by a 10-point margin, and slightly more people overall said they would be comfortable than uncomfortable with her as vice president. But only 40 percent said she is qualified to be president, compared to the 64 percent who said so about Biden.
Fed by her halting answers in interviews, Palin has become a television comedy staple. CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" featured an Alaska resident saying Palin tried learning about foreign policy by going to the International House of Pancakes. NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has also taken aim: Last Saturday, Tina Fey portrayed Palin in a mock interview with Katie Couric and described her family's recent trip to New York, including "that goofy evolution museum."
Potshots have also started coming from Republicans around the country.
Former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough, now a host on MSNBC television, said Palin "just seems to be out of her league" on national issues. Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review magazine, called her performance "dreadful" and warned that without improvement, "she risks damaging her political brand forevermore." And conservative columnist Kathleen Parker said Palin should drop out to save "McCain, her party and the country she loves."
"It's nonsensical," Palin spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said of calls for Palin to step down. "Sarah Palin has sparked great enthusiasm among Republicans and nonpartisans alike, and she's a great asset to the McCain campaign."
For now, Thursday's debate gives Palin a chance to improve her image and builds pressure on her to do so, Republicans say.
"The fact that she's been sheltered raises some questions about her ability to deal with these issues in a thoughtful and provocative way," said Thomas Horner, a GOP consultant in Minnesota. "I think there is a greater sense of urgency to do well in Thursday's debate to put these concerns to rest."