For more articles like this, check out our Political Pulse section.With just five days till U.S. voters elect their next president, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) continues to trail Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) in the polls. And as Nov. 4 draws near, pundits are reporting dissension and distrust in the McCain campaign's inner circle. Those insiders are said to be blaming one person: Gov. Sarah Palin (R., Alaska). Guess what? The advisers are dead wrong. Palin was the right pick as McCain's running mate. Her bid for the vice-presidency put McCain over the top in a race many had ceded to the Democrats even before it had started. McCain might be winning today if it weren't for one problem: those same McCain advisers. Those advisers turned Palin from an incredible asset into a weight around his neck. When Palin was named McCain's VP pick, I predicted her "surprise selection could ignite a media firestorm." Palin did create an incredible surge of interest, not only in the campaign but also in favorability for McCain. She drew both the Republican base and undecided voters to the table. Palin got off to a tremendous start. She spoke well in a speech at the Republican National Convention in September and attracted huge crowds on the campaign trail. Her popularity easily surpassed interest in McCain. His numbers lifted in the polls mostly helped by support from working class white people who identified with Palin and her family. She seemed like a real person, not just a politician. All of this occurred in spite of the fact that McCain barely knew Palin before he picked her as VP and the campaign had hardly vetted her. When the media vetting quickly turned up some potential problems, including her record back in Alaska, such as the so-called trooper-gate and her support for earmarks, the campaign had to make a decision on how to answer the questions on her record to ensure her popularity. Here's where things started to unravel.
The campaign decided that Palin should not be made available to the press, hoping the questions would disappear. They didn't. The pundits had found a new focus, breathing air into a tired campaign, and ramped up story after story about Palin. In fact, the Pew Center's Journalism.org found that Palin continued to dominate the news three weeks after the announcement of her running. An interested public wanted some answers on her record. The McCain campaign made a fateful choice. They decided to allow Palin to interview one-on-one with Charles Gibson of ABC News and later Katie Couric of CBS News. Both of the interviews turned into disasters as Palin had a hard time hiding her ignorance on the economy and foreign policy. It's always a bad sign when a parody on Saturday Night Live uses a political candidate's actual answers as punch lines! Was Palin unprepared? Sure, she was. She had relatively little knowledge on national and international issues and had never been exposed to a spotlight so bright. But the campaign could have managed this easily. Rather than have her appear in front of experienced and tough journalists, all they had to do was have her provide short press availability on the campaign trail. Have her spend 10 to 15 minutes a couple of times a week taking questions from a screaming pool of reporters and allow her to choose what questions to answer. She could then answer reasonably and comfortably. Any one-on-one interview should have only been held with local news reporters who would be unlikely to ask about Vladimir Putin during a visit to Paducah, Peoria or even Pittsburgh.
The only thing these disastrous interviews accomplished for the McCain/Palin ticker was to set low expectations for the VP debate. Palin performed fine in the debate without any major faux pas. However, a so-so performance came too late. She had already been denounced by some Republican commentators on conservative Web sites, including by columnist Kathleen Parker. The opportunity to show expertise had to come prior to the debate. Palin had been touted as the "energy governor" having expertise in dealing with that issue and with big oil companies. However, the campaign has never allowed her to give a major policy speech on energy. She has shown herself capable of presenting prepared remarks. She has spouted off time to time on the issue and offered some comments during an appearance in Ohio on Wednesday. Palin's only other policy speech came a week ago regarding special needs children. These efforts came much too late, and the focus on special needs children alone seems like a sexist relegation of role to be mom-in-chief. She could have been the energy VP. Other questions on Palin's experience could have been easily overcome. All she had to do was follow the successful model already provided by now-President George Bush. His folksiness and his ability to disarm the media by hanging out and chatting on the press plane allowed him to avoid some of the toughest criticisms on the campaign trail. When the stories are written after the campaign concludes, the pundits won't have to go far to find blame for a McCain loss. It was his campaign advisers who turned a populist asset into a losing liability. Palin was the ticket.