Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Suspended Animation

Sorry I haven't blogged for a week, but I suspended my coverage of the campaign due to the economic crisis. Other bloggers put themselves first; I put my country first. How can I be blogging, in a fog of self-indulgence, when highly leveraged financial institutions run by altruistic billionaires are crashing all around me?

Now I return from my self-imposed exile, only to see John McCain stealing my idea. In case you haven't heard, McCain announced today that he will suspend his presidential campaign (after another 24 hours of speeches and appearances) to focus his energy on solving the Panic of 2008. Sadly, this would mean postponing Friday's much-anticipated debate with Barack Obama, but hey, sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

(Truth be told - I was off in Wisconsin and Illinois, on a very fun sports junket with three colleagues, watching the Chicago Cubs clinch a division championship, the Green Bay Packers get whupped by the Dallas Cowboys, and Magic Slim and the Teardrops blow the roof off a blues club in the Windy City. I also spent some time interviewing voters in the swing state of Wisconsin - fascinating, revealing conversations that will air later this week and next, and about which I will blog in a day or two).

So what's the truth behind McCain's latest bold maneuver? Is he really as selfless as he claims, willing to lose an election to save an economy? Or is this a cynical ploy, designed to back Obama into a corner and reclaim the mantle of the maverick?

One thing is certain: we have yet more proof that John McCain is never afraid to throw long. At the low point of his campaign, when Obama was riding a glorious post-convention surge, McCain went to the far end of the Republican bench and plucked Sarah Palin from the wilds of Alaska, stunning the pundits and producing a surge of his own, vaulting him right back into the lead. Now, with the polls showing Obama pulling away again, with the economic distress depressing McCain's support and pushing the Democrat back up by six to ten points, McCain goes deep again. This time, he boldly proposes putting politics on hold, postponing Friday's debate, and challenging Obama to put country first, as McCain always promises to do. Is it risky? You bet. Is it a mistake? It may well be. Does McCain really want to send voters the message that he can't handle his Senate duties and run for president at the same time? Is anyone in Washington really clamoring for McCain and Obama, neither of whom has been a leader on economic issues in the Senate, to come rushing back to the Capitol and solve this crisis? Is the Senate going to be so busy on a Friday night re-working the bailout proposal, that the two presidential candidates can't spend a few hours in Mississippi debating foreign policy and national security?

As of this writing, the Friday debate goes on, as scheduled. Obama responded with the obvious line of reasoning: we need to debate now more than ever. It may be appropriate to tone down the partisan bickering in time of crisis, but the American people only have six weeks to make a critical decision, and it's even more important than it was a few days ago that the rival candidates put their policies on the table for all to see. He resisted the impulse to take a nasty jab at McCain's apparent inability to multi-task, though he did say, gently, that "America needs a president who can do more than one thing at once."

The darkest view of McCain's gambit could be that he's not ready for Friday's debate. It's the presidential campaign version of "the dog ate my homework." In this case, the economy ate my debate prep. The paper is due in two days and McCain just realized he hasn't memorized the names of all the new world leaders yet. But maybe this is what's really behind it: It's a clever ploy to buy more time for Sarah Palin. Yes, it all comes back to the Drilla from Wasilla. The McCain campaign is going to suggest moving the first presidential showdown to next Thursday, replacing the one and only vice presidential debate, which would be postponed to some unspecified date, later in October. That would give Palin a few more precious weeks to do her own homework. The Obama camp is not likely to bite though, so expect the debates to go on as planned.

Which means the Republicans will again be able to denounce Obama as a selfish Messiah who values his own ascent more than the economic well-being of the hard-working American middle class. But that's not likely to stick. Moving your presidential campaign to Washington, in the midst of an economic crisis, isn't ending politics as usual; it's as naked a political move as you'll ever see. Remember the last time a presidential candidate used a national crisis as an excuse to seek refuge from a rough campaign? His name was Jimmy Carter, and his "Rose Garden strategy" during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 backfired miserably. Suspend the campaign? Just long enough to delay the debates? McCain may need another kind of suspension - of the voters' disbelief - for this one to work.

Listen to McCain's announcement, Obama's response, and Katie Couric's exclusive sit-down with Sarah Palin tonight, along with the very latest polls (Fox News puts Obama ahead too, not just ABC), all on

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

That's the Ticket

So, Tina Fey made a triumphant return to Saturday Night Live this weekend to deliver a dead-on caricature of Sarah Palin.

Now, it might be time to bring back Jon Lovitz and his Pathological Liar skewer John McCain.

I strive for non-partisanship in this blog. I call 'em as I see 'em, and I try to afflict both sides, no matter my politics or theirs. This is not an advocacy site - I'm a political reporter and I try to offer insight, analysis, and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life on the campaign trail, all with a healthy side of humor. So let me say up front that every presidential campaign takes liberties with the truth. They all distort, and bend, and exaggerate. They take things out of context, and they take their rival's offhand comments and harmless jokes and blow them out of proportion. The Obama campaign is as guilty of that as any I've seen.

But the McCain campaign is going way beyond that. This campaign isn't just fudging a little bit. It seems to actually be lying, and it's rare that we in the media say such a thing. And the worst offense, to me, is that when it gets caught - the McCain-Palin campaign denies that it's lying, and keeps repeating the lies.

You don't have to take it from me. Maybe you think I'm part of the liberal media conspiracy. You can take it from Karl Rove, or from the Wall Street Journal. Look, if they accuse John McCain of lying in his campaign ads, it's probably true, right?

The saddest part of this is that it's coming from John "Straight Talk" McCain, a man who has always claimed to place his honor and integrity above all else, at least in his political life. Has he sold his soul to become president? Is he so close to tasting the ultimate political success, that he's letting his campaign managers run roughshod over the truth, his reputation be damned? Has McCain decided the end justifies the means, no matter how low and nasty?

Here are a few of the lies that bother me the most:

McCain, on the stump, cackles with glee as he tells a roaring crowd about his running mate, Sarah Palin, "I love that she sold the governor's plane on eBay! And she made a profit!"

THE TRUTH: No she didn't. Palin did put the jet on eBay, but nobody bought it. The state ended up selling it through a traditional broker, and at a $500,000 loss.

McCain, on The View last week, insists that Palin has not asked for or accepted any federal earmark spending for Alaska while governor, only while Mayor of Wasilla, and that she vetoed pork-barrel bills as governor.

THE TRUTH: Palin has requested almost $200 million in earmarks for Alaska this year, and that's on top of the $256 million in pork she snagged from the feds last year. That gives Alaska, far and away, the most federal earmark dollars, per capita, in the nation. But Palin herself keeps repeating, on the stump and in her lone interview so far, that she is "against earmark abuse."

Palin has also used that same tired line about the Bridge to Nowhere - "I told Congress thanks, but no thanks" - so many times now that even she isn't delivering it with the same conviction.

THE TRUTH: Palin campaigned for the $223 million bridge, fought for the money from Congress, and lobbied to get the bridge built. After the project became a national symbol of earmark abuse, Congress killed the proposal - and then, and only then, did Palin switch her position and oppose the idea of the bridge. She still took the money, though, and spent it on other projects in Alaska.

But the McCain-Palin campaign's lies go way beyond Palin's record. They also show up in the attack ads slamming Barack Obama. One cited Obama's "lipstick on a pig" quip - which came in the midst of a discussion of McCain, President Bush and economic policy - and, with the words "Obama on Sarah Palin" across the TV screen, asserted that the Democrat had "smeared" Palin. McCain finally admitted yesterday that he did nothing of the sort, and that Obama didn't really call Palin a pig. But will as many people hear his retraction as saw that ad?

Another ad takes Obama's committee vote in the Illinois Senate for "comprehensive sexual education" for children - specifically, a plan to teach kindergarten kids how to recognize and report inappropriate touching in case someone tries to molest them - and twists it into something sick. The ad claims that Obama wanted to teach little kids about sex, before teaching them to read, and therefore Obama is "wrong for your family."

McCain and Palin also keep lying about Obama's tax proposals. The Republicans are used to blasting Democrats as "tax and spend," so maybe it's a reflex response; they don't actually read the other guy's plans, they just assume he wants to raise everyone's taxes. But I've read two different independent, nonpartisan, objective analyses of Obama's economic plan so far (I won't ruin them for you by giving away the ending), and both concluded roughly the same thing: that Obama's plans, as outlined, would result in lower taxes for 80 to 90% of Americans. Not higher. Lower. But McCain and Palin keep telling voters that Obama will raise their taxes. How many people will actually read those plans to learn the truth? Very few. Most will simply nod their heads and assume the war hero is giving them the straight dope.

And therein lies the danger. McCain is either poorly informed, extremely confused, or dishonest. Maybe he thinks that he can just keep repeating the lies for seven more weeks and no one will notice. But people have noticed. So he really should stop. Because too many people believe the lies. Do we want this election decided by dishonesty? Don't we want the best person with the best ideas to win? Shouldn't each side present its vision for the future to the country, which will then pick the one it likes best? That's what democracy is all about.

Otherwise, John McCain will start telling people his running mate Fairchild! That's right! I met her while moose hunting and asked her if she wanted to be vice president! And if he repeats that one enough, people will soon forget all about this Sarah Palin person.

Hey, that's the ticket!

P.S. I learned today that the phrase "lipstick on a pig" was first coined by our old friend and KCBS colleague Ron Lyons. The first confirmed usage of that expression was in 1985, on the radio in San Francisco, by Ron, describing the Giants' plan to spruce up Candlestick Park, since their plan to build a new ballpark was going nowhere at the time. Those who knew Ron will immediately recognize that it sure sounds like one of his folksy, earthy expressions. But I had no idea the etymologists gave him official credit for that one. Ron, you can take your rightful place in the cultural pantheon now. We miss you.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tough Sledding

Sarah Palin made her unscripted debut tonight on ABC News. Those who already love her will probably think she was smashing, but anyone viewing her performance objectively will probably come away deeply concerned, if not aghast.

Deprived of the witty, biting speech she's been delivering in one form or another for the past week, Governor Palin had to rely on her own knowledge and political instincts. Generally speaking, the latter did not fail her, but the former came up woefully short.

Charlie Gibson grilled a nervous Palin on foreign policy and energy. Tomorrow, his series of interviews continues, presumably on domestic issues and questions about her family, and her record in office. I thought he was tough and persistent, in a calm, understated way, but certainly fair.

It became clear, fairly quickly, that Palin really is in over her head. She displayed little grasp of major international issues, even the simplest ones. Admittedly, American foreign policy is incredibly complex, but one would expect the governor of our country's vastest state, one that borders two foreign countries, to know the basics. Having traveled with Governor Schwarzenegger to both China and Mexico, I can guarantee you he knows far more about foreign affairs than his Alaskan counterpart does, and less than five years ago, he was a Hollywood actor (of course, he was born in Austria, which gave him a head start).

What stunned me the most was that Governor Palin had no idea what the Bush Doctrine was. It seemed as if she'd never even heard of it. Granted, most Americans probably couldn't explain it on demand, either, but they're not governors and they're not running for vice president. I'm sure most American high school students could though, since they've probably had to write about it on social studies tests, just as we had to explain the Monroe Doctrine or the Truman Doctrine once upon a time.

Considering that President Bush outlined his radical shift from previous American policies of deterrence and containment - to one of unilateral, pre-emptive strikes - in a major speech to a joint session of Congress after the September 11th attacks, a speech that millions upon millions of Americans watched, I was flabbergasted to see Sarah Palin stare blankly at Gibson when he asked if she agrees with it. She stammered through an answer that laid her ignorance bare, to the point that Gibson finally had to explain it for her. The McCain spinmeisters can play this however they like, but few unbiased viewers will see it their way.

Now, in all likelihood, most American voters probably won't be bothered by Palin's shaky answers on this and other key questions (when asked by Gibson what insights into recent Russian policies Palin has gained from Alaska's proximity to Russia, the governor gushed, "They're our neighbors! You can actually see Russia from some of the land in Alaska!"
Maybe she mind-melds with potato farmers while gazing out from the Aleutians towards Kamchatka). The voters already inclined to like Sarah Palin don't care about the Bush Doctrine, haven't met any foreign heads of state either, and probably don't have passports. They will respond to her confidence and spunkiness, and will probably get mad at Charlie Gibson for being mean to her. So it remains to be seen if media criticism, and the negative headlines that will no doubt be generated by the blistering attacks I assume the Obama campaign will unleash tomorrow, will dull any of Palin's sudden sheen.

In fact, the timing of this may work against Obama, because he plans to start ignoring Palin, and to refocus his campaign against McCain. Now the next 24 hours will be dominated by reaction to the Palin interviews instead, not to mention the landfall of Hurricane Ike.

But any American who cares about this country should watch these interviews, with deepening worry. Palin came off as an ill-informed hawk, someone who will be forced to rely on the knowledge and judgment of others when it comes to critical matters of national survival. That sounds an awful lot like the president 80% of the country thinks has done a terrible job, and considering that Palin's being advised by some of the same architects of his foreign policy - the one she'd never heard of - it's going to take more than lipstick for the McCain campaign to pretty this one up.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Let's Get It Started

Fifteen hours after the gavel came down, ending the Republican National Convention, bits of confetti bearing tiny images of John and Cindy McCain were still fluttering from the rafters at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Work crews clambered along the trusses and scaffolds high above the convention floor, dismantling lights and other equipment, and knocking leftover confetti clumps to the ground in gentle flurries of red, white and blue.

Outside, a big crane took down the bright red "CNN Grill" sign from the restaurant across the street, replacing the original "Eagle Street Grill" sign in its place. The giant Fox News video screen was packed away, and torn oversized posters of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity lay in the damp streets, run over by forklifts and flatbed trucks.

The parties are over. Now the real race begins.

And it begins, essentially, right where it left off two weeks ago: in a dead heat.

CBS News polled voters before the Democratic National Convention, and found them favoring Barack Obama, 45% to 42%. After Obama's wildly successful Denver convention, he had stretched his lead to 48-40. But after Sarah Palin's ecstatically received acceptance speech Wednesday, CBS found voters equally divided, 42-42. The Gallup Poll's daily tracking gave Obama an eight-point lead after his convention, 49-41. In the latest Gallup survey, he still leads, but only by four points, 48-44.

Some other interesting numbers: Barack Obama's acceptance speech a week ago was the most-watched convention speech in American history - but just for one week. John McCain tied that record Thursday night. Obama had more than 42 million viewers, far more than the finale of American Idol or the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Sarah Palin came close on Wednesday night, falling just a few hundred thousand short of Obama's audience. But McCain caught Obama in the ratings race Thursday, with a larger viewer audience on the commercial networks but a smaller one on PBS, ending up with the same 42.4 million pairs of eyeballs that Obama had (well, maybe not the exact same eyeballs but the same total number of them!). And, on average, more people watched the three main nights of the Republican convention than the four nights of the Democratic one, even though there are millions more registered Democrats in this country than Republicans, and the RNC was interrupted by Hurricane Gustav.

This means that yes, there is unprecedented national interest in this presidential election. People are tuning in, and not just based on their own ideological point of view. They want to know what these candidates are all about, even if they've already made up their minds. They are intrigued by Sarah Palin, and they want to know more about where Obama and McCain stand on the issues.

For the third presidential election in a row, we have a race that is ridiculously close and endlessly fascinating. It didn't used to be this way. But Bush-Gore, Bush-Kerry and now McCain-Obama have captivated the nation, and here's hoping that translates to record turnout in November, too. (I never quite understand why people don't vote; I have never failed to cast a ballot in a primary or general election since I turned 18. If you care, then you should vote. If you don't help choose your leaders, then your answer to whether your taxes should go up or down, your schools should get better or worse, or your nation should go to war or not, is a shrug of the shoulders).

The presence of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin on the tickets this fall should boost that turnout. Obama will obviously galvanize African Americans, and, presumably, younger voters, although we expect their numbers to rise every four years and they rarely do. Palin will motivate the GOP's conservative base, and should bring more women to the polls, but so far she seems to have activated the bases of both parties. A lot of Hillary Clinton supporters and other Democratic women are absolutely appalled by Palin. That CBS News poll found 69% of Hillary supporters saying they plan to vote for Obama now; it was only 58% a week ago. And Obama brought in a record $10 million in donations in the 24 hours after Palin's big speech, a simply stunning amount, while the Republican National Committee took in only one million (as of Friday, McCain can no longer raise money, since he is accepting public financing of the general election campaign, but the RNC can still fundraise on his behalf. Obama reneged on his earlier pledge and bailed on the FEC money, so he's free to raise, and spend, as much as he wants).

Palin may wear thin on the campaign trail, or she may become America's Sweetheart. Some people in Alaska hate her but most seem to love her. Voters may not care about the truth behind some of what she said Wednesday night (that governor's plane she "put on eBay"? Nobody bought it. The state ended up selling it through conventional means, and at a loss of half a million dollars. And you already know that she supported the Bridge to Nowhere before she opposed it, and that she sought millions and millions of dollars in pork-barrel earmarks as both Mayor of Wasilla and Governor of Alaska). Many Democrats seem oblivious to what Obama really intends to do as president, other than "change" things, whatever that means. Will we really get more substance from these candidates in the next 59 days, or will this devolve into another superficial, personality-driven beauty contest?

One thing seems clear: Governor Palin isn't running for Miss Congeniality this time (that's what she got in the Miss Alaska Pageant in 1984). She's an Alaska-tough, bare knuckles brawler, and if the Democrats are smart, they will essentially ignore the fact that she's a woman, and treat her like one of the boys. If they handle her with kid gloves, they're doomed.

I still think this race comes down to McCain vs. Obama, not Palin vs. Obama and Biden. The debates will be huge, and we never know what completely unanticipated moment or event could turn the election one way or the other. A terrorist attack, another international incident, an awkward slip of the tongue by Obama, a stiff moment on the stump by McCain, some candidate's impolitic utterance caught on a blogger's videocamera...who knows what surprise lurks in the shadows of this campaign? We do know that the Obama organization is as sophisticated as any we've ever seen, and the election may well be won by whichever side mounts the best get-out-the-vote operation.

It will be exciting, and it will be close. As President Bush might say...Bring it on.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Barracuda Strikes

I watched Governor Sarah "Sarah Barracuda" Palin deliver her speech last night from the middle of the California delegation, down on the convention floor. Most absolutely adored it. A couple thought she went too far with the snarky, biting sarcasm. But there's no question she absolutely wowed this crowd - and most of the media watching it here.

Funny thing; yesterday the McCain campaign hated all of us. Now they're quoting us. The RNC blasted out an email highlighting the mainstream media's rave reviews of Palin's speech (CBS, CNN, ABC, The New York Times - "simply brilliant," "a star is born," "electrifying," "a force to be reckoned with") - one of those "What They're Saying" press releases. As my managing editor quipped, "I guess they like the media elite now!"

The Republicans seem to have turned up the air conditioning in the convention hall today - the better to freeze our elite little media typing fingers. I sat down with Katie Couric for an interview over lunch today (she had a green salad with lots of strawberries and craisins in it - what is a craisin anyway?). She was shivering, all bundled up in a shawl. It could be part of the GOP's anti-media conspiracy. Maybe they'll turn up the thermostat now that we all have crushes on Sarah Palin. Or maybe the colder air is to keep everyone awake during John McCain's FIFTY-FOUR MINUTE acceptance speech. That length could be a big mistake for the sometimes excitement-challenged McCain.

So, what did you think of Palin's speech? I thought it was very well-written, as expected, and delivered quite well, again, not surprising. Palin was calm, relaxed, comfortable and charming. She's a natural on the stage, Reaganesque almost. The four days she spent holed up at the Hyatt Regency here with speechwriter Matt Scully and other McCain campaign staffers obviously paid off. Expect her to repeat some version of that speech from New Hampshire to Nevada over the next two months. She's obviously quite comfortable in the traditional running mate pit bull role - does that mean she'll stop wearing lipstick? She could put Obama and Biden in an uncomfortable position. If they attack her, the McCain-Palin campaign cries "sexism!" If they lay off, she punches them in the face (rhetorically speaking). But if her snidest moments grated even on some of the GOP loyalists in this hall, imagine how they might irritate the suburban Democrats and independents McCain needs to win. Her Fargo-voiced hockey mom routine could wear thin out on the campaign trail.

I ran into McCain, with his wife Cindy and Joe Lieberman, in the bowels of the arena a few minutes ago. He had just done his walk-through on the stage; I was on my way back from lunch. I got stopped in a corridor by the Secret Service, and then along came the McCains with Senator Joe. I did not hear Lieberman telling the presidential nominee there was still time to reconsider his running mate selection. McCain flashed a smile and asked how I was doing. I said fine, asked him how he was doing, and whether he's ready for tonight's big speech. He said "sure, ready to go" and gave me a big thumbs up. Unfortunately, I had left my recorder upstairs while buying a club sandwich, but it was such a brief encounter I probably wouldn't have gotten any worthwhile audio out of it anyway.

The Palin frenzy on the Internet has gone viral. How many times have you received the PhotoShopped picture of Palin in a stars-and-stripes bikini wielding a semi-automatic weapon? (it's not really her, sorry guys). How about the email from Democrat Ann Kilkenny of Wasilla, talking about Palin's record there? (that one is real; the New York Times interviewed her and she's an actual friend of an actual friend of mine in Alaska). Maybe I'll send along some excerpts from that one next time if I have time...

By the way, Obama is holding his lead in the polls...even through three days of the Republican Convention. BUT...and it's a big but...the latest Gallup daily tracking poll (Obama still ahead, 49-42) was completed before Sarah Palin's speech, so it doesn't reflect its impact. In tomorrow's numbers, we'll see if Sarah Barracuda took a bite out of Obama's support.

I had more to say but now I have to run...just got a Secret Service alert about a huge war protest...demonstrators are "massing" outside and will attempt to block delegates' buses from getting here to see warned to heed police instructions and not get caught up in the dragnet of ruffians and scoundrels (not us; the protesters)...and look out for flying bags of urine....I will get back to you later!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Shoot the Messenger

That would be me, and all my colleagues here. All 16,000 of them.

Yesterday, the Republicans had Talking Points. Today, they've got angry words. Tomorrow, they may break out the sharp sticks. Or perhaps they'll borrow the bags of human waste the protesters are flinging at people, and throw them at us. Except they might hit conservative talker Sean Hannity, who's sitting right behind and above me, and that would be tragic, so we're probably safe.

Privately worried about the implosion of John McCain's vice presidential pick, and the way the Sarah Palin Story has been playing across the country, the Republican Party launched an all-out offensive today against The Media. People hate us anyway, so we're easy targets. The high-level surrogates spread out across the Twin Cities like a flock of angry parrots, armed with loaded words like "sexist," "offensive," "disgusting" and "woman-hating." Orrin Hatch showed up at the California breakfast and read us the riot act. He told me that questioning Palin's experience or record is "dismissive of women." Former Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina denounced us all for portraying Palin as a "showhorse instead of a workhorse," saying we've described her as a "nice little girl...a good cheerleader." If anyone can find a clip where any of us said anything of the kind, please forward it to me.

Over on Fox News, the anchors are clucking sympathetically, asking supposed Hillary Clinton-supporting Democratic women to explain for viewers how deeply offended they are by the Palin-bashing, and how Sarah's going through exactly what Hillary suffered.

Personally, I find sexist (and offensive) the assumption that any close examination of Palin's record has something to do with her gender. With the exception of the pregnant daughter scandal, Governor Palin is being treated exactly the way Dan Quayle was when George H.W. Bush sprung him from obscurity (where I believe he now resides again) back in 1988. It was the same sort of feeding frenzy - who? is he qualified? he's how young? what about this Vietnam scandal? - born of the presidential nominee's desire to choose a next-generation running mate, to shake things up with a surprise pick who would broaden his demographic appeal. That's exactly what McCain did, so he can't really be surprised by the reaction. Palin's record, and her lack of experience, are absolutely fair game. Barack Obama's are too, but he's been running for president for two years, and has been vetted by the American people. A majority of the largest political party in the country has decided he's fit for the presidency. In November, the rest will weigh in. But no voter has had a chance to evaluate Palin yet, and it's our job to dig up as much information on her as possible, to help them make an intelligent assessment. The good, the bad, the moose-slaughtering...whatever's out there.

Now I've heard the backstage buzz here, and I've talked with some Republican operatives off the record, and many of them are as bothered by the Palin nomination as the most ardent Democratic blogger. They see it as purely political, cynical pandering even, and they think McCain may have just lost the election. So, in classic GOP style, they're going on the attack - and it may just work. At the very least, it will buy them some time, close the gap in the polls by a point or two, until Palin gives her speech tonight, which I wager will be quite good and delivered well. Then McCain goes for the jugular tomorrow night, and they bring this race back to a statistical dead heat, at least for a few days. In the meantime, they are force-feeding the governor through a giant policy hose, and they will hope she digests as much as she can before her first news conference (exactly when will that happen?) and her debate with Joe Biden, which is a month away.

Palin's speech was written by Matt Scully, a Christian conservative vegan animal rights activist who used to write for Bush and Cheney and now works for McCain, so we'll have to see how he squares his own attitudes on the human place in the food chain with Palin's. I hope he didn't squat on the grizzly bear skin on her office floor when he was showing her the rewrites, or it might have put him off his tofu.

Speaking of food, for some bizarre reason, the RNC instructed the operators of the Xcel Energy Center not to open the concession stands in this arena. Monday, the union-operated stands were closed for Labor Day. Yesterday, they opened a single hot dog stand. Today, more of them have finally opened, maybe because of the growling stomachs of the delegates, staff and media who don't have access to the luxury corporate smorgasbords or the network TV mess halls. But didn't the GOP see the long lines of Democrats snatching up pizza and nachos at the Denver convention? I thought Republicans liked to make money - I don't understand why they've kept the concessions shuttered until now.

I ended up wandering the streets and buying a chicken gyro from a man who moved here from Kurdistan. He's one of eight Kurds in the Twin Cities. He was a chef for American troops in northern Iraq during the first Gulf War, and when they left his country, he was allowed to come with them to the United States! He settled in Saint Paul (he couldn't really explain why; it wasn't the appeal of deep snow and he's not a Minnesota Viking fan), but I am grateful that he's here to feed me some delicious Greek salad and pita. He says he first opened his restaurant as "Kurdish-Turkish-American Food," but when no one ever came in, he switched it to a "bistro," serving chicken fajitas and gyro. Business is booming.

One other quick note - I met Samantha Bee of Comedy Central's Daily Show today. I missed her last week, when I met her unfunny male colleagues in Denver. I stumbled across her while she was interviewing the Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, who I've interviewed over the years in California about gay marriage and the like. She was gracious, friendly and sweet, and genuinely pleased when I told her how much I like her work. The reverend had no idea who she was, and when I asked him how his interview went, he told me "I think she has an agenda." Oh, Lou, you have no idea! The bit will air tomorrow night (thursday), and I have a feeling Samantha is hysterical in it.

Not that I'm calling her a showhorse or anything. Oh wait, that may be sexist. I have to go turn myself in at the Bad Media office down the hall. See you later.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Palin in Comparison

I went over to the Ramada Inn near the vast Mall of America today, where the Alaska delegation is staying. There I found Alaska Republicans who absolutely adore Sarah Palin. The chairman of the delegation, Anchorage businessman Chris Nelson, says Palin is resilient, tough and often underestimated. He accuses the media of piling on with outrageous stories about her past, and thinks there will be a voter backlash against the media and in favor of Palin.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stopped by Radio Row and told us all the same thing - that the media should be embarrassed about the way we're covering Palin, and her daughter's pregnancy.

Another Alaska delegate told us Palin's family troubles are just that - family matters - and neither relevant to the campaign nor anyone else's business.

Then I obtained a copy of the confidential "Republican National Convention Talking Points" memo that was distributed to all the Alaska delegates. No wonder they all sound the same - they were all carefully instructed to tell us the exact same thing. The memo urges Alaska delegates to "STAY POSITIVE when talking with reporters" and to emphasize that Palin "brought change and new energy to the Office of the Governor...she will bring this same new energy to the Presidential ticket." It continues with three bullet points about energy, and Palin's experience with energy resources in Alaska. And a second page tells delegates to say that Bristol Palin's pregnancy is "a personal issue for the family" and that media should "respect the family's privacy."

The memo also addresses corruption in Alaska and the challenges facing the state GOP. The best lines are about indicted U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, the dean of Senate Republicans, who's in deep trouble this fall as he runs for re-election against Democratic Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage. That's one of the seats Democrats are confident of snatching from the Republicans in November.

Here's what the delegates are supposed to tell us if we ask about Senator Stevens:

"Ted Stevens is our guy."
"He is the only person, except Governor Palin, who can beat Mark Begich in November." (The party was considering dumping Stevens and running Palin in the primary to replace him, but obviously abandoned that strategy).

And here's the kicker:

"As long as does not receive jail time he is legally capable of serving."

Indicted? Convicted? Hey, as long as he's not behind bars, he can still proudly represent Alaska in the Senate.

Now, in the interest of equal time and fair play, I have to report that I chatted with a TV cameraman from Anchorage. He has covered Palin for about five years, and says she was absolutely, positively pregnant last spring, and he has no doubt that little Trig is really the governor's son. He, too, heard the rumors that Bristol was really the baby's mother, but he says he saw Governor Palin throughout March and April, and says unless she was wearing a fake belly to perpetrate some elaborate cover-up, she was definitely with child. He says she was certainly showing signs of pregnancy in her seventh and eighth months, even though she doesn't look it in all those photos on the Internet. That's good enough for me; he seemed quite credible, so I think we have to accept that Sarah Palin really has five kids, and that Bristol is pregnant now with what will be the gov's first grandchild.

The cameraman also described Palin as friendly, open and pleasant, and said she was always ready and willing to welcome media to her office and do interviews. Suddenly, though, he says, that's all changed. The McCain campaign has clamped down and taken control, and she's been completely inaccessible here. The TV shooter believes Palin might make a fine vice president or president someday, but says she's in way over her head right now, and is clearly overwhelmed. We'll see how she performs tomorrow night.


Denver was overrun with button vendors, T-shirt stands and the like, all hawking vast quantities of creative Obama merchandise. Here? Hardly any McCain-Palin vendors. I found one souvenir stand in the arena, with a pathetic selection, and have yet to see a single vendor on the streets outside. Where are all the souvenirs? How will I maintain my button collection? The entrepreneurs are missing the boat here, because these delegates are enthusiastic and they have money. I suppose this could be construed as evidence that there's much more of a populist groundswell for Obama than for McCain, and that the vendors just don't see a market for McCain buttons, because trust me, those guys are bottom-line only types, and couldn't care less about the politics of a candidate if he or she can move merchandise and make them some money.

The protesters were out in force yesterday, with thousands of people blocking buses, clashing with riot cops, and getting pepper-sprayed. Today, there are hardly any. But we've just been warned by the Secret Service that they have "credible evidence" that the anarchists and anti-war groups outside are planning to target the media, and that we should exercise extreme caution. We're told that they have bags full of urine and feces, and plan to fling them at us, and that they may attack "news media personnel or property." My hunch is that they're more interested in targeting Fox News or CNN than little old KCBS radio, so I'm really not too worried. Besides, maybe this is just a ruse to jaundice our view of the demonstrators.

According to the daily Gallup tracking poll, Barack Obama is maintaining the bounce he got from last week's Democratic convention, despite, or maybe because of, McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate. After Obama's speech, the Democratic nominee opened up an eight-point lead in the poll. It dipped to six points Saturday, the day after Palin's debut, but is back up to eight points today. And notably, for the first time, Obama has hit the magic 50% mark. He leads McCain, 50-42; until now, his best showing was 49-40. We'll see if the lead holds as the Republican convention gets back on track. Tonight, President Bush will address the delegates by satellite from the White House, for about eight minutes, outside of prime time. Then it will be Fred Thompson and then, Joe Lieberman, with a hot rumor that Old Joe might announce he's switching to the Republican Party. Tomorrow night, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani will speak, and then Thursday, McCain gives his acceptance speech. All of that should eat into Obama's lead, and, barring any more Palin bombshells, I will be stunned if Obama's still eight points up by Friday.

On the other hand, we've just heard that Bristol Palin's baby daddy, high school classmate Levi Johnston, is being flown out here for his future mother-in-law's big speech tomorrow night, so that he can be part of the family portrait, and if that doesn't bring out the paparazzi and keep the Palin preggers story alive, I don't know what will...

Signing off for now...

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Amazing Mrs. Palin

Last year, I watched a six-part British TV production on PBS called "The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard." It was about a suburban supermarket manager who's fed up with corrupt politics and decides to stand up against the system. She stands for Parliament, forms a new party - consisting mostly of women - and somehow, against all odds, wins the election and becomes Prime Minister. Her oldest daughter has trouble coping and causes a scandal by posing nude for a magazine. Her blue-collar husband also chafes at his wife's newfound celebrity and power, and admits to a sordid money-laundering incident from his past.

The sudden emergence of Sarah Palin reminded me of Ros Pritchard, from the fairy tale rise of the feisty mom-turned-politician right down to the wayward teenage daughter. And Palin's story is dominating the Republican National Convention so far here in Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

These delegates absolutely adore Sarah Palin. They were already confident about beating Barack Obama in November, and the addition of Palin makes many of them downright cocksure - they've got the winning ticket in McCain-Palin.

"Wait until the country gets a load of Sarah Barracuda," longtime Republican strategist Mary Matalin told me today, using the nickname the governor earned as a scrappy high school point guard. "She's going to wow everybody on Wednesday night." But on Monday, the "wows" were in reaction to Palin's bombshell announcement that 17-year-old unmarried daughter Bristol Palin is five months pregnant, and as a result will marry the baby's father, a boyfriend identified only as "Levi."

Palin said she's "incredibly proud" of her pregnant teen, and "even prouder" at the prospect of becoming a grandmother at 44 (never mind that she preaches abstinence and opposes sexual education in the schools). But she only went public about her daughter's condition because of the barrage of rumors on the Internet - at Daily Kos, Atlantic Online and elsewhere - that Bristol is the real mother of Palin's newborn son Trig. The speculation centers on Bristol's five-month absence from school last winter and spring because of "mono"...the fact that no one even suspected Governor Palin was pregnant until she announced it in March, when she was seven months along and showing no signs of pregnancy...on photos that show Bristol sporting what could be a "baby bump" last winter while Mom was as svelte as ever...and on the way Palin gave birth to her premature son with Down Syndrome. The governor was in Texas to speak at a conference when she said her water broke. Rather than rush to the nearest high-risk maternity hospital, the 44-year-old mother of four, going into labor one month early with a chromosomally mutated fetus, decided to deliver her keynote speech, then board a plane back to Alaska, fly eight hours while in a labor that no one on the plane noticed, land in Anchorage and then drive all the way back to Wasilla before delivering Trig at her local hospital.

I am told by obstetricians that this is beyond ridiculous, medically insupportable and probable cause for a malpractice suit.

Suffice to say that there are those at this convention - they are not delegates - who find the pregnancy of Palin's daughter a tad on the suspicious side. By backdating Bristol's pregnancy to April, it becomes almost impossible for her to be Trig's true mother. She's not expected to give birth until after Election Day. But many observers here note that Bristol's being with child still doesn't explain away all those other odd circumstances from Sarah Palin's last pregnancy.

As far as the Republicans are concerned, this is Internet conspiracy talk - and they suspect the Obama campaign of spreading it. Obama denied that flat out today, and angrily said he will not tolerate any attacks on any candidate's family, especially the children. He said all the right things and seemed sincere.

Sincerity is what some critics think Palin lacks, and there will be enormous pressure on her when she accepts her vice presidential nomination Wednesday night. If she is engaging, forthright and personable, addressing the questions about her head-on, she could emerge from this convention as a formidable partner for McCain in the general campaign. If she falters, appears defensive or out of her league, or if there are any more sordid revelations, she could doom the ticket, or even be pulled from it by McCain. She hired a lawyer today to handle her end of Alaska's "Troopergate" investigation; her husband admitted a DUI conviction from 22 years ago. What's next? She hangs upside down in the rafters of the Juneau capitol during Alaska's long dark winters?

As I wrote the other day - and I've heard this echoed by several knowledgeable talking heads here in St. Paul - we underestimate Sarah Palin at our own peril. She is obviously a talented politician. But there's more to her than meets the eye. People roared during her introductory speech the other day when she announced that she had told Congress "thanks but no thanks on that Bridge to Nowhere," the pork barrel project that's become emblematic of wasteful earmark spending.

The truth? She was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. She campaigned for it when she was running for governor. She went to Washington to lobby Congress for more money for it. According to the Anchorage Daily News, Palin pulled the plug on the bridge only when Congress balked at its rising cost - and she still took the $225 million from Washington. She simply used it on other projects, to the great dismay of the people in Ketchikan who would've benefited from the bridge - and is now building a "road to nowhere," which was supposed to connect to the bridge, which isn't being built. But if Alaska doesn't build the road, it will have to give back the $25 million for that portion of the project, so Palin is building the road anyway.

This is why I always tell everyone - Obamamaniacs, people who swoon over Arnold Schwarzenegger, those who thought Sarah Palin was a MILF and now think she's about to become a GILF - that you have to peel away the layers on these politicians to find the truth. There's always more there than you think. Few of them are as squeaky-clean as they seem. The breath of fresh air sometimes hides a nasty stink.

It will be up to the voters to decide whether they're bothered by a teenage pregnancy in the governor's family. Perhaps a little sex ed in the home would have done Bristol Palin some good. I know Alaska has the lowest population density in America, but it's not the Palin family's personal responsibility to fill in all that open space.

Republicans here don't care about any of this. They see Palin as the godsend they need to stop Obama. Right now, the voters at large aren't sure. As we fill in more of the blanks about her in the days ahead, we'll find out whether McCain pulled a rabbit out of the hat - no pregnancy pun intended - or made a rash, ill-informed decision that will haunt him, and the GOP, for the next eight years.