Palin's Gender, Family, Politics Spark Debate

The selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate electrified the social conservative base of the Republican Party. On Wednesday, Palin addresses delegates at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Palin's gender, family and politics have people debating her place on the ticket.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Tonight is Sarah Palin's night at the Republican Convention in St. Paul. News of her selection as John McCain's running mate electrified the social conservative base of the GOP, then news of her unmarried teenage daughter's pregnancy became the number one topic of conversation in St. Paul. It sparked a debate about McCain's decision-making style, the media's treatment of candidates' children and working mothers.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Campaigns like to get bad news out all at once, and do it themselves before the media can. So, on Monday, while a hurricane was raging in the Gulf and the rest of America was enjoying Labor Day, the Palin family revealed their daughter's pregnancy, along with a fishing license violation and her husband's 22-year-old drunk driving charge.

The McCain campaign insists it knew these facts all along, but there were still questions from the media.

Unidentified Woman: Senator, was your vetting process thorough enough for (unintelligible)…

Unidentified Man: Thank you. Please come - please go out that door right there.

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

LIASSON: McCain's rival, Barack Obama, had said candidates' families should be off limits. After all, his mother got pregnant at 17 before she was married. So his surrogate, Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa, who was dispatched to St. Paul, focused instead on what the Palin pick said about McCain's decision-making style.

Mr. TOM VILSACK (Former Governor, Iowa): Family, children - I don't really think that's the issue. The issue is the process that Senator McCain chose to use and the decision he made. What does it say about him?

When I was vetted in 2004, there were multiple interviews with individuals, with lawyers, as well as John Kerry. None of, or very little of that happened this time. So that suggests that this is a gut decision that was made by John McCain. That concerns me, because we've had eight years of gut decisions.

LIASSON: The McCain campaign says Palin did go through the traditional background checks, but it appears that the campaign spoke to very few Alaskans about her. McCain's leadership style is either gutsy and out of the box or very reckless. McCain himself has written that he makes decisions as quickly as he can, and often, he said, my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.

But there's another debate going on about Palin among women, who are divided about her choices as a mother and a politician.

Professor RUTH MANDEL (Director, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University): Women's issues tend to explode this way.

LIASSON: That's Ruth Mandel, the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

Prof. MANDEL: Now, suddenly, we're talking about women's lives, motherhood, the relationship to political leadership. And it's all somehow connected to this woman's life, essentially, as a mother. I mean, there's been very little discussion so far about her experience as a governor, how she was as a mayor. It's all been about - it's kind of been gynecological and obstetrical.

LIASSON: Some of this is unavoidable, Mandel says, because from the moment of her selection, Palin deliberately presented herself as a mother and a family woman, and McCain did not hide the fact that her gender was part of the reason he chose her.

The debate about Palin's own choices has turned the traditional debate about work and motherhood upside down. Liberal women have criticized Palin for seeking the vice presidency at a time when she has a special needs infant and a pregnant teen. But conservative women have thrilled to the Palin nomination.

Like Sarah Palin, Marjorie Dannenfelser describes herself as a pro-life feminist. She's the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports pro-life women in politics, and she's been surprised that so many female commentators have not been supportive.

Ms. MARJORIE DANNENFELSER (President, Susan B. Anthony List): We have a whole field of choices as women to choose from. People fought for a long time for that to come about. And for some of the feminists who actually opened those doors to now criticize her and her family's decision to do this is true hypocrisy.

LIASSON: Republicans are pushing back hard against what they see as a double standard in the media, and they're using it as a rallying cry. Last night at the convention, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson said the selection of Governor Palin has the other side in a state of panic because, Thompson said, she's a courageous successful reformer who's not afraid to take on the establishment.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, St. Paul.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Washington editor Ron Elving compares the scrutiny of Sarah Palin with the questioning of Dan Quayle, what he faced 20 years ago, at our Web site: npr.org.

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