Sarah Palin: McCain's 'Hail Mary' Pass?

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It was not what I expected. Not from anyone.

I didn’t expect what Peggy Noonan described, on the record, as a hail Mary pass from John McCain in a race that was essentially tied.

I didn’t expect my liberal friends, feminists prominent among them, after years of arguing that personal choices should be personal, that having a family should not disqualify a woman (as it frankly so often does) from having it all, to turn on a dime and go after the second woman in history to be chosen for a major party ticket because of her own personal choices. Policy, yes. Experience, fair enough. But the fact that she has five children? The fact that one has special needs? Supposedly putting profession above prenatal care? Never.

Ten days ago, I would have told you that the Republican Convention would be a four day negative ad against Barack Obama, four days of "two memoirs, but no bills," four days of "voting present instead of leading," four days of William Ayers and Reverend Wright, of ringing red phones and the contrast between ambition and experience.

It wasn’t.

It was four days of Sarah Palin, interrupted only briefly by a hurricane and John McCain.

I cannot tell you how many of my Democratic friends knowingly told me that Sarah Palin would be off the ticket by last Friday. I cannot begin to count how many stories the HuffPo ran attacking her, or how many the New York Times ran about her children. I can tell you that by Saturday, Arianna herself was telling Democrats to forget about Palin. Good advice, but no signs that anyone – her own website included – is following it.

I remember in 1984, shortly before the Vice Presidential nomination was announced, receiving a phone call from Vice President Mondale. I had talked to him in person, in the basement of a Minnesota hotel, not two weeks before, ducking out of a meeting with women’s leaders to talk amidst heating pumps and Secret Service agents.

My distinct impression, more a direct message than an impression, was that my then boss, Platform Committee Chair Geraldine Ferraro, was not going to be tapped for the Vice Presidency. I called her as soon as I got back to Washington, and told her as much. Fine, she said. The beating she had been taking in the press from unnamed Mondale aides since her name had surfaced had already made clear what a mixed blessing the choice could be.

"Did you tell him to tell his people to stop beating up on me," she asked me.

I did.

She was content. I was asked to go to work on Mondale’s issues team after the Convention, and I accepted. My job with Ferraro was ending. We both knew. I’d done my best. Until I had that second conversation.

"Our thinking has changed," then-campaign chief Jim Johnson told me, before putting the former Vice President and soon-to-be nominee on the phone.

He told me it was down to two people, both of whom I happened to know well: Geraldine, who I had been working for, and yes, with what we called the "A Team," positioning for a Vice Presidential run all year, holding hearings to show her knowledge of foreign policy, traveling to key states around the country to show her popular appeal; and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who I had spent much of 1981and 1982 helping to win re-election to a second term as Governor of Massachusetts after a humiliating and unexpected defeat in 1978.

The contrast was obvious. Massachusetts had one of the strongest economies in the nation. Dukakis was widely viewed, and with reason, as one of the most effective Governors in the nation. He lived in a duplex, and took the T to work. It would take about twenty minutes to do the personal vetting. A safe choice. Like Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s popular governor, the runner-up to Palin. But not an exciting one, even for the Greek-American community which had already seen one of its own (Spiro T. Agnew) ascend to the Vice Presidency.

Geraldine was another matter. Her choice would electrify the Convention. Its announcement was one of those moments women of my generation will never forget. But Geraldine Ferraro was never "safe." She said what she thought. She was a three term Congresswoman, not a two-term Governor. Her husband was in real estate in New York. They had money. There were rumors as there were with Cuomo, as there are with most Italian politicans from New York. She was the Hail Mary pass.

Mondale, running way behind in the polls against an extremely popular incumbent presiding over an economy that had recovered from recession, needed the pass and he took it. It was an amazing Convention, and a rocky fall.

Sarah Palin was McCain’s hail Mary pass. It may work. It certainly worked last week, in the sense that the liberal media and my feminist friends fell over themselves as they fell into the trap of unfairly attacking her, and she rose to the occasion, demonstrating grace and grit, toughness and determination, and wowed most Americans in her Convention speech. The two-some people were talking about was not longer McCain and Bush but McCain and Palin. Then again, they were also not talking about Obama’s inexperience, or Reverend Wright or the red phone. On the Saturday after the election, Obama was still ahead in the Rasmussen poll.

The press is not going to stop trying to dig into Sarah Palin, into her past, her policies, and her neighbors’ views of her, just because they have come under attack. They don’t back off, they bore in. One of these days, she will have to take their questions. God help her if she ever confuses "first strike" with "first use," as Ferraro once did, or makes a flip comment about her husband not wanting to release his taxes, or makes reference to blueberry muffins instead of support for agricultural subsidies at a farm stop. Those are also days I still remember.

The conventional wisdom will tell you, as I was saying so many times after Obama picked Biden, that Vice Presidents don’t decide elections. Nixon beat Humphrey in 1968, even if Ed Muskie could have defeated Agnew in a heartbeat. Lloyd Bentsen was the overwhelming choice of Americans of both parties over Dan Quayle in 1988, even as George H. Bush was beating Dukakis. The 2008 election may yet come down to a contest between Obama and McCain, without regard, except as a sideshow, to Biden and Palin. But there has been nothing conventional about this year so far, and that makes me nervous every time I repeat stories based on the conventional wisdom.

What I know is that there were signs that people were starting to lose interest in what had been the most exciting campaign of recent years, notwithstanding the historic nomination of the first African-American candidate. That changed last week. Who will win is another matter. As they say in Hollywood, no one knows anything. After last week, that could not be clearer.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for