Palin Casts Herself As Reformist, Outsider

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin begins her vice presidential campaign as a self-proclaimed reformer. But as a mayor and as governor, she defended the pork brought home by Alaska's congressional delegation, and even hired a lobbyist to get more.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When she took that bigger stage last night as her party's nominee for vice president, Sarah Palin emphasized her reputation as a reformer and an outsider.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Republican Vice Presidential Candidate): When I stood up to the special interests and the lobbyists and the big oil companies and the good ole boys, suddenly, I realized that sudden and relentless reform never sits well with entrenched interests and power brokers. That's why true reform is so hard to achieve.

MONTAGNE: But a look at her record in Alaska shows that the reform spirit has sometimes been modulated to fit the situation, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Over the years, Sarah Palin's running mate, John McCain, has spent hours upon hours declaiming on the Senate floor. His target is Congressional earmarks - the thousands of items that lawmakers slip into spending bills to send federal money to friends and neighborhoods.

Last Friday, Palin said she's onboard McCain's anti-earmark express. She brought up a controversial bridge project from 2005.

Gov. PALIN: I told Congress thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere.

(Soundbite of applause)

Gov. PALIN: If our state wanted a bridge, I said we'd build it ourselves.

PETER OVERBY: We'll come back to the bridge to nowhere in a moment. But first, a quick look back at Palin's history with earmarks. Nearly a decade ago, she was mayor of the small city of Wasilla, population then about 5,000. She hired Wasilla's first Washington lobbyist specifically to get federal money. This isn't unusual in Alaska.

Ms. RYAN ALEXANDER (President of Taxpayers for Common Sense): It's the bread and butter of how they do business in Alaska, and I think she got very good at doing business with earmarks.

OVERBY: Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. The non-profit group monitors federal spending, and lately has spent a lot of time on Alaska. Alexander says that this year, Alaskans will get about $500 per capita in Congressional earmarks, more than 10 times the national average. And when Palin was mayor of Wasilla, she did even better than that.

Ms. ALEXANDER: As mayor in 2002, now Governor Palin was able to get almost $1,000 per citizen of Wasilla.

OVERBY: And when Palin ran for governor in 2006, she lined up with the state's congressman and two senators in their quest for federal money. She spoke at the Alaska Professional Design Counsel Forum.

Gov. PALIN: And our Congressional delegation, God bless them, they do a great job for us. The strength of our delegation there in D.C. is the envy of all other states.

OVERBY: She singled out Congressman Don Young for praise. He's the original legislative author of the Bridge to Nowhere earmark.

Gov. PALIN: Representative Don Young, especially God bless him with transportation, Alaska did so well under the very basic provisions of the transportation act that he wrote just a couple of years ago, we had a nice bump there. We're very, very fortunate to receive the largess that Don Young was able to put together for Alaska.

OVERBY: So what about the Bridge to Nowhere - or, as residents of Ketchikan think of it, the bridge that would connect their city with its new airport across the sound? Ketchikan city mayor Bob Weinstein says that about 200,000 visitors a year use the airport and take a ferry to the city. Weinstein is a Democrat, although the city elections are non-partisan. He says Candidate Palin campaigned in Ketchikan in 2006 and told voters that she supported the bridge. She said she understood their resentment when it was ridiculed as a Bridge to Nowhere. Then, as governor, she cancelled the bridge with a press release, but not the money - $223 million stayed in Alaska. So Weinstein says Palin's claim the other day, as he put it, didn't reflect reality.

Mayor BOB WEINSTEIN (Ketchikan, Alaska): She did not ever tell Congress thanks, but no thanks. She knows the state got all the money.

OVERBY: And Alaska got 38 million from Congress to build an approach road to the bridge. Under Governor Palin, that road is now being built.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting helped to report that piece. You can find out more about the collaboration between CIR and NPR, the Secret Money Project, at npr.org.

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McCain Nominated; Palin Strikes Back At Critics

Audio Highlights

Read transcripts and hear audio from some of Wednesday night's key speeches:

Romney's Speech

13 min 41 sec
 
Mitt Romney i i

In his speech, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says, "We need change all right — change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington." Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Mitt Romney

In his speech, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says, "We need change all right — change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington."

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

John McCain was formally awarded the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday, but the night belonged to his embattled running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who delivered a rousing speech that electrified delegates and served notice that she will be a tough campaigner despite questions about her experience.

Palin defended her experience as mayor of a small town in Alaska before she became governor, while also taking aim at Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities," she said, referring to Obama's time as an organizer in Chicago.

She also challenged Obama's judgment on Iraq, saying, "Victory in Iraq is finally in sight; he wants to forfeit. Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America; he's worried that someone won't read them their rights."

McCain joined Palin and her family onstage at the conclusion of her address, telling delegates, "Don't you think we made the right choice for vice president?"

Palin becomes the first woman to accept the Republican vice presidential nomination and the first on a major-party ticket since Democrat Geraldine Ferraro ran with Walter Mondale in 1984.

The Obama campaign called Palin's speech "well-delivered" but said it was "written by George Bush's speechwriter and sounds exactly like the same divisive, partisan attacks we've heard from George Bush for the last eight years."

Night Of Combative Speeches

Palin's remarks, which brought delegates to their feet, capped a night of combative speeches from Republican heavyweights, including several of McCain's former rivals for the GOP nomination.

"[Obama] is the least experienced candidate for president of the United States in at least 100 years," former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani told the cheering crowd, adding, "Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada."

Two other former presidential candidates also took to the stage: Former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. All three delivered spirited defenses of Palin's credentials to serve as vice president, while questioning Obama's qualifications to occupy the Oval Office.

A Bold Debut

Palin took the stage Wednesday night amid a barrage of criticisms and questions about her background that have swirled around her since McCain unveiled her as his running mate last Friday.

She is being investigated by a state legislative committee for her firing of the state public safety commissioner. It was discovered that she sought and won millions of dollars in federal earmarks for the town of Wasilla — where she served as mayor before winning election as governor in 2006 — before becoming an outspoken opponent of federal largess. And she backed the so-called Bridge to Nowhere before she opposed it.

The McCain campaign has lashed out at the news media for their continued investigation of Palin's background, their coverage of the pregnancy of her teen daughter, Bristol, and for questioning the vetting process that led to Palin's selection.

In her deft and at times pugnacious acceptance speech, Palin pushed past recent criticisms of her, introducing herself to voters with confidence.

She took on those in the media who have questioned her background, saying she has learned quickly in the past few days that "if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone."

"Here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators," she said. "I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this great country."

Palin, a firm proponent of drilling for more oil, also says a McCain-Palin administration will pursue an aggressive energy exploration policy.

"Our opponents say, again and again, that drilling will not solve all of America's energy problems — as if we all didn't know that already," Palin will say. "But the fact that drilling won't solve every problem is no excuse to do nothing at all."

She said that a McCain-Palin administration will "lay more pipelines, build more nuclear plants, create jobs with clean coal and move forward on solar, wind, geothermal and other alternative sources. We need American energy resources, brought to you by American ingenuity, and produced by American workers."

Sharing The Stage

Three of McCain's former presidential rivals brought the crowd to its feet.

Giuliani, the last of the three men to speak, fired up the delegates with remarks that attacked Obama and made the argument that Palin and McCain had more experience than the Democratic nominee.

"Gov. Palin represents a new generation. She's already one of the most successful governors in America and the most popular," Giuliani said to cheers and applause. "And she's already had more executive experience than the entire Democratic ticket combined. She's been a mayor. I love that."

Giuliani added, "I'm sorry — I'm sorry that Barack Obama feels that her hometown isn't cosmopolitan enough. I'm sorry, Barack, that it's not flashy enough. Maybe they cling to religion there."

Romney, who was first to the stage, said, "We need change, all right — change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington! We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington — throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain."

Romney also told Republican delegates that "just like you, there has never been a day when I was not proud to be an American. We inherited the greatest nation in the history of the Earth." That was a thinly veiled dig at Michelle Obama, who, as Democrats began to rally around her husband's campaign earlier this year, said she was proud of her country "for the first time in my adult life."

Huckabee joked that he was "originally hoping for the slot on Thursday called the acceptance speech. But I am delighted to speak on behalf of my second choice for the Republican nomination for president, John McCain."

Huckabee praised Obama's "historic achievement" in becoming the Democratic Party's nominee, "not because of his color, but with indifference to it." Huckabee said Obama's achievement "elevates our country." But, he said, "The presidency is not a symbolic job, and I don't believe his preparation or his plans will lift America up."

Huckabee also defended Palin, calling coverage of Palin's selection "tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert."

He added that Palin "got more votes running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, than [Democratic vice presidential nominee] Joe Biden got running for president of the United States."

Soon, McCain's Turn

Thursday night, it will be McCain's turn to deliver his acceptance speech. Aides have said the podium at the Xcel Energy Center will be reconfigured so he will be speaking in an in-the-round setting, similar to the town hall-style meetings where McCain often appears more comfortable.

McCain will be speaking after the NFL's opening season game, and he is expected to draw a large audience. He'll have the opportunity to remind voters again of his compelling personal history and his departures from GOP orthodoxy.

But coming on the heels of Palin's rousing address, McCain will have a tough act to follow.

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