McCain Vetting Process Questioned

John McCain's pick for vice president, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is the subject of much attention. Controversial issues, including her teenage daughter's pregnancy, are raising questions about McCain's vetting process for Palin.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Many of the questions surrounding John McCain's vice presidential pick Sarah Palin come back to this one: How well was she vetted before Senator McCain chose her as his running mate? Well, those questions dogged the senator today during a visit to a firehouse in Philadelphia. This one came from NBC's Kelly O'Donnell.

Ms. Kelly O'Donnell (Correspondent, NBC News): Senator, was your vetting process thorough enough, sir...

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): ...vetting process was completely thorough and I'm grateful for the results.

Unidentified Man: Okay. Guys, thank you very much.

BLOCK: McCain defended his choice of Palin and the way she was vetted.

Well, NPR's Mara Liasson is with us now from the Republican convention in St. Paul at the Xcel Center. Mara, first, tells us more about what John McCain's campaign has said about this vetting process that has raised so many questions.

MARA LIASSON: Well, according to the McCain campaign and McCain himself, the process might have been quick, but she was thoroughly vetted. She got the same 70-question-long, intrusive form that every other potential vice-presidential candidate got. They say they knew all about the pregnancies and the babies. You might not have known her for very long compared to Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, but she was vetted properly. And they're saying that because they released this information about the pregnancies, about the DUI of her husband, about the fishing license violation, this proves that the vetting process worked because they released it all themselves. And according to one person on the campaign that I talked to today, they are absolutely certain that they know everything there is to know now about Sarah Palin. And I guess we'll just have to wait to find out if that's true or not.

BLOCK: This is the message obviously from the McCain campaign. Do you think the view would be different if you were to go outside the McCain campaign and ask Republican operatives what they think about the process?

LIASSON: Well, some Republicans are nervous about what else might not be known about her. The actual facts that have come out that the - about her daughter's pregnancy or about her own baby - that is not causing a problem among Republicans, that is an energizing thing. I think the process does say a lot about the way John McCain makes decisions.

And as a matter of fact, he wrote about the way he makes decisions in one of his books. In "Worth the Fighting For" where he says: I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow if I can. Often, my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint. So that's kind of the fighter pilot mentality. And one of the things that's happening here at this convention is Republicans here understand that they chose John McCain. They felt he was the only candidate who had a chance this year. But when you do that, you get on the McCain rollercoaster. And he is someone who makes decisions viscerally; some people would say impulsively. And this is what they're going to have to get used to.

The other thing I am hearing today is that there is a double standard. People resent the fact that there are so many questions about whether Sarah Palin can do the job because she has five children, because she has a pregnant teenage daughter. They say no one is asking those questions, no one would ask those questions about a man and no one would ask those questions about a Democratic woman.

BLOCK: So, clear defense of this choice. But at the same time, you do wonder whether this news came out in the way that the campaign would have wanted. How had they expected to release this information about Bristol Palin's pregnancy?

LIASSON: Well, what I was told today was they wanted to get this information out as soon as possible, probably not during the convention. But once those Internet rumors about Sarah Palin not being the mother of Trig - her fifth baby - the rumors were that it was really Bristol's baby - those have been swirling around Alaska for some time. But once they reached a fever pitch nationally, they had to squelch them. And they chose to take advantage of a day when there was a hurricane and a national holiday and do it all together.

As Tucker Eskew, who's one of the McCain advisors, said, he said: We are going to flush the toilet. In other words, get everything out yesterday. The fishing license violation, the DUI of her husband 22 years ago and of course, the pregnancies. And that really is campaign disclosure 101. Get the bad news out early, do it all at once. Do it yourself rather than have the media find it out for you.

BLOCK: And Mara, there are reports that the McCain campaign has a team in Alaska. What's their mission up there? What are they doing?

LIASSON: Well, you know, it was - the New York Times said that they were actually, the vetting team that was getting there rather tardily, but the McCain campaign says they are the team that would have been sent to any home state of whoever the vice presidential candidate would be. And they're there to deal with the questions about all of the things that have come out and whatever else might come up. They are a team of operatives who are going to be on the ground in Alaska. And they are probably going to run into all those investigative reporting teams from all sorts of news organizations who are also there.

BLOCK: Okay. Mara, thanks a lot.

LIASSON: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson at the Republican convention in St. Paul.

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How Much Did McCain Know About Palin?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain says he knew, before offering Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin the job as his running mate, that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. Nonetheless, the revelation is spurring questions about the vetting process and just how well McCain knows Palin.

"We really have just been introduced to her in the last few days, and the McCain campaign has not had an opportunity to talk to a lot of people in Alaska about her to get, if you will, the full 360 on Sarah Palin," NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving tells host Madeleine Brand.

"It's very difficult to do this kind of vetting process quickly," Elving adds, "and it does appear as though it were not necessarily a terribly long vetting process."

The campaign has said that Palin submitted to a three-hour interview and answered a questionnaire that consisted of 70 questions. Given that neither the transcript nor the questionnaire has been made public, it's impossible to know what sort of questions might not have been asked or answered.

Some have said that McCain was leaning toward Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman as running mates — not Palin — but that his advisers pushed him away from them because they are pro-choice.

"He had been clearly contradicted on this by some of the elements of his campaign," Elving says, "And people telling him ... 'If you pick someone who is pro-choice, you will lose the enthusiasm of the convention, because so many of the people here at the convention are very strong social conservatives and ... you will lose their enthusiastic participation this fall in the November vote.' "

Initial portraits of Palin, after McCain's announcement, painted her as a sort of maverick. Digging further into her biography has shown, however, that she was not always such a reformer. Though she now declares herself staunchly opposed to federal earmarks and what is known as the "Bridge to Nowhere," Ketchikan's Gravina Island bridge, that wasn't always the case.

"I think there has been a turnaround in the career of Sarah Palin, and I think it's quite an understandable one," Elving says. "When she first was going from the city level [of Wasilla] to the state level and dealing with the power structure in Alaska, she dealt with Sen. Ted Stevens and Congressman Don Young, and they did things for her that helped her get a lot of money spent in her town."

When she won the Republican nomination for governor, however, her political pathway changed rather radically, he adds.

It was then that she became the sort of reformer that McCain would be attracted to, Elving says, "a kind of earmark buster, even though she had been a great beneficiary of earmarks up until that point."

Elving does not see this as signifying any sort of falseness so much as "that she was in one kind of mode when she was mayor, and in another mode when she moved to the state level and then the national level."

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