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Running Against Sarah

From beauty queens to political veterans, Palin's former foes offer battle-worn advice.

As Maryline Blackburn watched Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson last Thursday, she noticed something familiar. “She has in her eyes that look of determination--a look I remember from 24 years ago,” said Blackburn, who defeated Palin in the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant. Palin placed second. “It is a thinking, calculating look,” Blackburn added, the look of a woman plotting “where to go to get ahead.”

The ambition that Blackburn glimpsed in Palin is a trait many of her opponents in races large and small have noted, from her days running for city council to her vigorous quest for the governor’s mansion. But her drive to succeed comes with its pitfalls. Indeed, conversations with several of her former opponents--all biased to some extent, as at one time or another they staked their futures in contests against Palin--reveal much about Palin the Candidate. She’s brilliant when flashing a smile, delivering a speech, and connecting with people, but she tends to skirt issues because she rarely has a handle on them. Quick to anger, slow on policy, and accustomed to pandering media, Palin has an Achilles’ heel (or a few) that Democrats could target before Election Day.

R’Nita Rogers lost to Palin in a 1995 contest for the city council of Wasilla, Alaska. In an interview with TNR last week, Rogers said Palin won the race, which focused mainly on issues like paving subdivision roads and improving the town’s sewer system, because she got “down in the trenches to make that one come through. She knocked on just about everybody’s door, I swear.”

But in Rogers’s view, Palin’s key tactic was, and still is, manufacturing drama. In a conversation the two women had before running for the city council, Rogers said she admitted to Palin that she wasn’t sure how she would tip the scales in a tight race. Palin said her experience in the Miss Alaska contest had taught her how to come out on top. “She felt she had lost [Miss Alaska] because she, unlike the other candidate, hadn’t created the drama to center the attention on [herself] at the right time. She felt that that was the best way to win,” Rogers recalled. (Blackburn thought Palin’s edge came in part from her “great body--part of the pageant is the swimsuit competition, [and] she was very toned and shaped--a healthy type the judges were looking for.”)

Rogers would not elaborate on the sort of drama Palin created in Wasilla, but she did say Palin politicized a typically low-key, community-oriented mayoral race by running against incumbent John Stein in 1996 with backing from the state Republican Party. (Stein declined to comment.) Rogers also said Palin tended to twist and embellish the truth as a candidate. “She liked to infer that situations might be happening that weren’t necessarily so,” Rogers said of Palin in the mayoral race. “She does like her drama.”

State senator Loren Leman narrowly beat Palin in the 2002 Republican primary for lieutenant governor, despite the fact that Palin was still mayor of Wasilla and had little statewide political experience. He attributes her success to her being an “interpersonally… extraordinary candidate.”

“Whereas three of us in the race had a far better command of the issues and, technically speaking, could debate and dissect issues the state was involved with far more than she could, she had the capacity to, what I call, ‘speak at the heart level,’ and come up with a quip that would catch the attention of the audience,” Leman said. He recalled a debate in which the candidates were asked how they would handle the state government’s top management if it wasn’t prioritizing issues well. “I would encourage firing the guys who can’t prioritize,” Palin responded, garnering loud applause. “A handful of people polled after the event declared Palin the star of the afternoon,” The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner later reported. “She got applause and a chuckle … whereas those of us who had been involved in government probably dissected that question more technically,” Leman told TNR.

He also said she was savvy in creating “gotcha” moments. In a private conversation months before the primary for lieutenant governor, Leman said he told Palin she would be good for the job. (He was considering running for governor and broached the possibility of her running as his second-in-command.) After both Leman and Palin decided to run for the same position, Palin asked him in a public debate if he had ever said she would make a good lieutenant governor. “I’m sure it was all calculated out to get me to admit that I said it or to deny that I said it, which would catch me in a political fib,” Leman said. “She was going to come out of that exchange with a little plus, which she was looking for. She needed credibility.”

Leman hinted that, despite her tough persona, Palin takes criticism too personally. In 2006, when Palin ran for governor, Leman said he spoke with her after the Republican primary to discuss how she was running her campaign. “She told me, ‘Sometimes I feel like this campaign is [my husband] Todd and me and a girlfriend,’” Leman recalled. “I told her [the campaign is] going to have to elevate to where you have really capable people around you.” Palin called Leman the next day to say that she was offended by his comments, taking them as a criticism of her friends and closest advisers. “I thought at the time that she may have been more sensitive to my comment than [was necessary],” Leman said.

Echoing Leman, Andrew Halcro, an outspoken critic of Palin who ran against her for governor as an independent in 2006, said Palin sometimes reveals her “thin skin." At forums, Palin frequently stashed note cards behind her nameplate so that she could see them while seated at the candidates’ table. When Halcro criticized the use of notes, a Palin spokesperson told The Anchorage Daily News that if “[Halcro] thinks he’s always the smartest person in the room, maybe he should make that his campaign slogan.” At one event where the candidates were supposed to stand to address the audience, a miffed Palin demanded otherwise. “I heard her tell her staff, ‘You get back in there and you tell them that’s not going to work. I need to be seated. I will look like an idiot,’” Halcro told TNR. Moments like these, he said, showed Palin to be “snippy” and “insecure.”

Palin was difficult to debate, Halcro added, because while she didn’t know the issues well, she was masterful at tap-dancing around questions and offering “glittering generalities” or populist “happy talk.” Halcro told The Los Angeles Times that in a private conversation after a debate in Fairbanks, Palin questioned her opponent’s heavy focus on issue positions. “I look out over the audience, and I wonder: Is that really important?” Halcro recalled Palin saying. “Those of us who are policy wonks would say, ‘Hell yes,’” Halcro told TNR.

He also described an October 2006 health care debate, before which Palin was sitting on a couch backstage with two aides trying to memorize statistics and other information. When the candidates went on stage, Palin carried a pile of papers with her. “We were going down the line answering questions, and she’d just pat this stack of reports and say, ‘People a lot smarter than me have come up with these, and we’re going to evaluate what they’ve come up with,’” Halcro said.

The dynamics of a national campaign will certainly be different than those Palin faced in Alaska. “She’s used to a lot of deference and kid gloves and people calling from her staff and complaining about [media] coverage when she doesn’t think it’s fair,” Halcro said. In his view, her cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor could fall away during heavy questioning from national media. “It’s the follow-up questions that are going to kill her, because she’s not used to them.” As governor, he added, she often has relied on her close staff to answer incisive queries during press conferences--something she won’t be able to do on the 2008 campaign trail. (The McCain-Palin campaign did not respond to requests for comments for this story. The Alaska governor’s office declined to comment.)

Randy Ruedrich, head of the Alaska Republican Party, said that Palin’s biggest flaw may be that she “doesn’t like to ask for money.” Ruedrich, who resigned from a state commission in 2005 when Palin accused him of ethical violations, believes she would have won the lieutenant governor primary if she had done a better job fundraising in 2002. (It seems she had remedied this issue, at least to some extent, by 2006.)

But the consensus among Palin’s former adversaries is not to underestimate her ferocity. Tony Knowles, a Democrat who ran against Palin for governor, said Palin was a strong opponent who “never missed a beat.” Similarly, John Binkley, who ran against her in the Republican gubernatorial primary, praised Palin’s debate skills and said he could never find a way to one-up her. (Frank Murkowski, the incumbent governor Palin defeated, couldn’t be reached for comment because he was on a duck-hunting expedition.)

Even if the media or Democrats are able to expose her flaws, Palin’s former opponents say, she’ll fight to stay in the game. “I promise you, look in her eyes when she speaks,” said Blackburn, who beat Palin for the Miss Alaska crown. “That tough look in her eye [says], ‘You’re just not going to get me. I am going to make this happen.”

Seyward Darby is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. Matthew Fraser, a TNR intern, contributed reporting for this story.

By Seyward Darby