When Senator John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate two Fridays ago, the first-term governor and would-be vice president was a complete stranger to the vast majority of Americans. But, as we soon found out, she had already charmed not just her fellow Alaskans and a devoted University of Colorado at Colorado Springs undergraduate student--the one who launched “Draft Sarah Palin” early in 2007--but also some of the most influential members of D.C.’s conservative establishment. Who were her earliest boosters in the chattering class, and how did they fall so hard, so fast?

The love affair officially began in June 2007, when a 936-foot ship, bearing some of the country’s leading conservative pundits, cut through the Alaskan seas. It was The Weekly Standard’s annual summer cruise, and though Fred Barnes, the magazine’s executive editor, could expect to lead some panel discussions with former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and perhaps enjoy the ship’s Vegas-style lounge, he didn’t imagine he’d wind up writing a glowing profile on the next star of the Republican Party.

“I had no plan to stop and see her,” Barnes says now. “I wasn’t that ahead of the curve.”

Someone from an Alaska Republican women’s club arranged a social meeting, figuring Barnes and company would find a lot to like in the governor. “This wasn’t The Nation cruise, after all,” says Barnes. Indeed, Barnes found Palin “quite impressive and likeable and smart and pretty.” In his piece that followed, entitled “The Most Popular Governor,” he saluted the newbie politician’s “eye-popping integrity,” running down her impressive scorecard on bread-and-butter conservative issues, like fiscal accountability. The Weekly Standard would become one of Palin’s strongest proponents leading up to the veep nomination, with editor Bill Kristol eventually stepping out in June to name her the smart choice.

Rising gas prices gave Palin the opportunity to impress another key Republican constituency: the pro-business, oil-friendly, anti-regulation wing of the party. Back in January, Palin had penned an op-ed for The New York Times arguing against the idea of protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. As governor she had been unequivocally advocating for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)--a proposition that McCain had been opposing, to the dismay of many in the conservative base. But here was an attractive, plainspoken Alaskan, with a blue-collar husband in the oil business, who seemed dying to drill in her backyard.

Such credentials won Palin some highly influential admirers, most notably Larry Kudlow, the host of CNBC’s “Kudlow & Company,” and Rush Limbaugh. Touting her oil stance on his show in late June, Limbaugh gushed, “Here is a female Republican who is willing to gut it up.” (Just a few months earlier, Limbaugh wasn’t sure how to pronounce Palin’s name, though he’d seen a photograph of her. “She’s a housewife,” he said back in February. “Before that, she’s a babe.”)

Kudlow, who describes his attitude on ANWR as “drill drill drill,” says he hadn’t heard of her until this spring. “Somebody tipped me off to Palin--I can’t remember who. He just said, ‘You ought to get her on your program. She’ll defend [drilling in] ANWR, and nobody else will.’ She came on the program, and we hit the bid pretty fast.” Kudlow even managed to coax Palin into chiding McCain over his early anti-drilling stance. “I had interviewed everyone over the course of a year who was running for president or vice-president, and to tell you the truth, her knowledge and delivery on-air really impressed me. She has a better grasp of the energy story than anyone, and she has an attractive personality.” Kudlow named Palin his favorite pick in late July.

In one of his columns in early June, influential conservative columnist Jack Kelly did the same. Kelly acknowledged Palin’s relative anonymity, but argued there was nothing for conservatives not to love. Undeterred by her lack of big-office experience, Kelly painted her as a reform-minded fiscal conservative with the perfect personal background--Sarah Barracuda the hoops star, a mother of five with an NRA membership. He proclaimed her the “one potential running mate who has virtually no downside.” Yet, like others, Kelly says he hadn’t heard of Palin until just a few weeks before lending his support. He says a friend who was an ardent fan of Palin’s urged him to take a look at the governor.

“A lot of liberals don’t understand: Real Republicans are disgusted with the Republican Congress because it was corrupt and it was cowardly,” Kelly now says, as surprised as anyone by McCain’s choice. “Sarah Palin took on a corrupt Republican establishment in Alaska. Ask the normal rank-and-file Republican what they think of people like Ted Stevens, and you’ll get them fuming. Sarah took them on and beat them. That’s why she’s a conservative folk hero.”

Over the summer, Kelly’s rationale started to make sense to at least one pollster, Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports. Of course, there was no data to be gleaned on Palin specifically, since almost nobody polled had even heard of her, “but when I looked at the data in terms of what would help McCain, there was a lot of information there,” says Rasmussen. “We were asking people to rank ten issues in order of importance to them. Government ethics and corruption came up near the top consistently. Whatever Sarah Palin did, she had made that reform crusade a part of who she was.”

Another factor played into Rasmussen’s thinking: The birth in April of Trig Paxson Van Palin, her fifth child, who has Down syndrome. Palin had long ago declared herself anti-abortion, claiming during her failed 2002 bid for Alaskan lieutenant governor that she was “as pro-life as any candidate can be.” But Trig’s birth gave her the kind of unassailable pro-life bona fides that few Republicans can claim. It also gave her a touching story and made her more difficult to attack on the podium.

Though most Americans beyond Alaska had still never heard of Palin, the story of Trig made her an overnight hero among influential evangelical leaders like Dr. Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was publicly touting Palin as a strong choice in early August. Land says the McCain campaign solicited his advice on the veep issue around that time, and he argued that a pro-choice candidate on the bottom half of the ticket, such as Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge, would poison the candidacy. He recommended either Palin or Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia. “When it became clear that [Palin] had given birth to a baby with Down syndrome, she became an instant heroine in the pro-life community--it elevated her above all other pro-life office holders,” Land says.

The Trig story also resonated with Glenn Beck, the popular pundit and TV host, who has a child with special needs of his own. Beck says he had never heard of Palin until he read a moving news story about Trig’s birth a few months ago. He wanted to get her on his CNN Headline News show, which hammers a populist theme but lists to the right on most issues.

“I loved her language about Trig, and the fact that when she found out the baby had Down syndrome, she said no to more testing,” recalls Beck. “I said, ‘Can we find her and get her on the air?’” After running a segment on Trig, Beck brought Palin on the show to discuss the need to drill for oil in ANWR. “I was talking to my producer two weeks before the announcement, and I said, ‘This is just the kind of person we need--this is the kind of person that would excite me.’” The day she was put on the ticket, Beck, who considers himself a conservative but not necessarily a Republican, went on the air and said McCain had chosen the one veep who could possibly persuade him to pull the lever for Republicans.

Few of Palin’s early boosters seem fatally discouraged by the soap opera quality of her candidacy thus far. Whether McCain’s vetting of her was sufficient is little more than a “process issue,” says Barnes, “and even people who like process issues probably won’t care.” The forthcoming birth of her daughter’s child only reinforces her pro-life reputation, argues Land. “I work with eight women at my office here in Nashville,” he says. “These are women who are not normally given to giddiness, but when the announcement was made, we had one skipping down the hall and another clapping her hands together.”

And as for Palin’s unfamiliarity, most conservative pundits agree that the more they hear, the more there is to like.

“We’re crazy about her,” Kelly confesses. “She touches all the bases with courage and grace. She’s Ronald Reagan in a dress--or the brains of Margaret Thatcher in a more attractive package.”

Dave Jamieson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.



By Dave Jamieson