John Thomas has lots of reasons to support John McCain for president.
Like McCain, Thomas is a former Navy officer. They're about the same age, and Thomas considers himself a political independent with a conservative bent.
But Thomas, a one-time supporter of President Bush, said McCain running mate Sarah Palin's recent interviews sealed his decision to vote for Democrat Barack Obama.
"She's not prepared at all," Thomas, 70, said as he loaded groceries into his car outside a Sam's Club warehouse store on the outskirts of Huntsville. He said listening to Palin argue that Alaska's proximity to Russia was a foreign policy credential "frightened me to death."
"I went out on the golf course Thursday and that was what everyone was talking about," Thomas said. "They're very frightened about McCain and his age ... and to have Palin a heartbeat away."
Even in the staunchly Republican South, Palin is facing deep skepticism about her qualifications heading into Thursday night's debate with her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. The wave of enthusiasm here that greeted the Alaska governor's conservative positions on social and religious issues remains in many quarters, but it has been tempered by uncertainty about her readiness, particularly among moderates.
In part, this reflects a huge nationwide drop in the percentage of likely voters who find Palin qualified. An Associated Press-GfK Poll taken Sept. 27-30 in every state found just 25 percent now say she has the experience to be president, down from 40 percent. Among likely Republican voters nationally, those who found Palin qualified dropped from 75 percent to just 47 percent.
"I don't really know what her experience is," said Johnathan Hurwitz, a 40-year-old Army officer based at the Redstone Arsenal outside Huntsville, noting that Palin has largely been sheltered from questioning by reporters or voters. The moderate Republican said Palin's selection was more about political strategy than substance. He said he has not been impressed with her performance to date and is leaning toward voting Democratic.
Hurwitz and Thomas notwithstanding, there's little chance that McCain and Palin will lose the Deep South. A recent poll in Alabama, for example, showed McCain with a big lead over Obama, and the numbers are not much different in states like Mississippi and Georgia. In 2004, Bush won Alabama 62-37 percent and Georgia 58-41.
Many Republicans say Palin remains a strong asset in the region, where McCain trailed more conservative candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in the primaries. Southerners, they say, identify with Palin's small-town roots and down-to-earth style.
"I think she brings new life to the party. She's not an insider from Washington," said Republican Amy Boyle, a stay-at-home mom from Huntsville who warmed up to McCain after he named Palin.
In central Georgia, Jean Hammock said she had a similar reaction. The retired contracting officer at Robins Air Force Base said Palin stood up to politics-as-usual in Alaska and will do so in Washington.
"Since he picked up Palin, I'm enthusiastic," Hammock said.
The staying power of that enthusiasm, however, could well hinge on Palin's performance in the debate with Biden. Many Republicans hesitated when asked if Palin is qualified for the job and said they would give her the benefit of the doubt. A strong showing could make doing so a lot easier.
"Does she have as much experience as I would like for a vice president? No," said Republican Dave Shultz, a real estate agent from Warner Robins, Ga. "But I do think she could handle the job if it were dumped on her."
(This version CORRECTS Corrects spelling of Shultz in last graf.)