10/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Palin Puts McCain One-Up In Ohio

"There was nobody I wanted to vote for -- but now I'm so ecstatic," crowed Vickie, a forty-five year-old who works at the Southwest Ohio Development Center. Vickie's enthusiasm for Sarah Palin, the presumptive Republican vice-presidential nominee, is the predominant mood among the women at the Dayton rally where Friday John McCain introduced his choice for second-place on the ticket to an overflow crowd of Republican Ohioans. Having spent some time earlier in the summer following the Ohio campaigns, from Zanesville to Portsmouth, I just didn't see how John McCain could win this supposed battleground state -- not with the formidable number of voters that the Obama Campaign is going to rack up in the big cities, not with Appalachian Ohio lukewarm and lassitudinous about John McCain. Without Appalachian Ohio turning out in force to vote, John McCain can not win this state, and without this state, he cannot win the White House. Unless intense media scrutiny and the St. Louis debate destroy her credibility -- and it's going to take a lot more than bridges, polar bears and an abusive brother-in-law to have any sway in the Buckeye State -- Sarah Palin has suddenly put Ohio seriously into play for John McCain.

The Obama Campaign has sent out an email to the press that quotes the analysis from Editor & Publisher on the latest Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls. "First Two National Polls Find Palin Gains LESS Support from Women," the E&P staff writes on August 30. Likely many pro-Obama blogs and articles will link to this interpretation and build upon it. However, a careful analysis of the Gallup and Rasmussen polls themselves and their methodologies do not support such a sweeping conclusion. Rasmussen finds that Sarah Palin is unknown to 78% of women. Therefore, conclusions about her come from a very small segment of the population.

Furthermore, her approval rating from all voters on the day she was introduced as running mate was 53%, while Joe Biden's on his day was 43%. The important numbers on Palin do not come from the nationwide polls. Nor do the polls matter that include Democrats, most of whom could never warm to such a conservative, pro-life candidate. The significant numbers are Palin's favorability ratings among Republicans (78%) and Independents (63%). For John McCain to win the presidency, Republicans have to come out in force to vote just as Democrats surely will. And McCain must garner a significant portion of both Independents and undecideds. If Sarah Palin survives the media and a one-on-one with Joe Biden, she could be the exception that proves the rule of vice-presidential inconsequence.

The women of the Gallup and Rasmussen polls have never seen Sarah Palin in person. The Republican women of Ohio who watched her Dayton debut, however, were just as fired up as the Greenwood women were for Obama last year. Like Vickie, Jenny had not been sure she would in the end vote for John McCain. "Now I'm enthusiastic," she said. "She [Palin] has a better feel for our energy problems than other politicians. Plus she's an example for our daughters and an inspiration for us women at home with little kids." Like Sarah Palin, Jenny has five children. She added, "She [Palin] shows that you can start small. And that it's never too late." Later I spoke with Eileen, who has three children and who has recently retired. "I'm going home and calling my mother -- I'm so excited," Eileen said. "It would've been same-old, same-old with the other choices. They wouldn't have mixed it up, and change is what's needed."

Christie, at age twenty-four the youngest McCain supporter with whom I spoke (although there were a surprising number of college students at the Dayton rally), described herself as a "right in the middle of the road" voter. Like other 20-year olds of the more conservative women, Christie described Sarah Palin as "a very wise choice." She went on to speculate that Palin "might pull in a few Hillary Clinton voters." (There is no evidence of that so far.) Susan, another mother of three, speaking with me while trying to restrain her two youngest from fighting over the red, white and blue light sticks handed out for the rally, echoed the other women. "I think it's fantastic! She [Palin] is street ready. She's gonna do so many things for women," Susan said, in reference to Palin's remark about fighting Alaska's "good old boy network." Julie, age 57, who used to trade stocks and now blogs, thought that "it was a very smart move on the part of the [McCain] campaign because Sarah Palin hits all the right demographics. And she's like one of us. Also, she knows what working people go through." Not that there seemed to be that many working class people at the Dayton rally. (In fact, email invitations to apply for tickets had gone out to a selected group of Ohio Republicans; there had been more replies than tickets, and the event spilled over into standing room only.) Julie pointed to the women and children waiting for the parking lot shuttle buses. "There are a lot of home-schoolers around here," she said. "That's why you're seeing so many kids here on a school day." Julie observed that Palin had hit just the right note with these women by honoring her husband in speaking first of him, "still the man that I admire most in this world."

Despite this initial enthusiasm for Sarah Palin, the man she admires most might well sabotage her as well as McCain. After all, the presidential ticket ambitions of Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton (one could argue) were thwarted by their husbands. Jack-of-all-trades Todd Palin has yet to be scrutinized. From the Alaskan north slopes to the fishing docks, from the union hall of the USW to the world of snow machine racing, men must already be sharing a few stories about husband Palin. There's also the small matter of national and foreign policy gravitas--owned by Joe Biden and not the governor of the Aleutian Islands, no matter their geography. In the October St. Louis debate bout, Governor Palin could turn out to be another Dan Quayle or James Stockdale, and a weak showing on her part would deliver a knock-out blow to John McCain. However much Alaskans and conservative Republicans like Sarah Palin many experience an underlying anxiety about her readiness to sit in the Oval Office is already coalescing nationwide.

McCain's choice of Palin is characteristic of him, for he's drawn to risk, the long odds and the pleasures of the game, sometimes to the point where confidence becomes carelessness. Nevertheless, in their toughness and penchant for taking on issues of reform and spending, the two pols share a perspective. Not that John McCain, however much he may admire Sarah Palin, will depend upon her. Whenever someone has stood in a McCain town hall meeting to ask the Senator's thoughts on choosing a running mate, McCain has always been dismissive, making the same joke: "The role of the Vice-President is to break a tie in the Senate and to inquire daily as to the health of the President." McCain can sometimes be very funny, but this remark is more passive-aggressive than humorous. On the one hand, he's telling us that he thinks little of the office of Vice-President -- that it's ceremonial. And certainly in the unlikely event that Sarah Palin goes to Washington, it's even more unlikely that John McCain will give her an opportunity to sweep out the Congressional Augean stables or to "do so many things for women." On the other hand, there will be a long line of her fellow citizens looking over her shoulder as Palin makes that daily inquiry.

Coming to McCain's Dayton Rally straight from the Democratic Convention in Denver, the difference in style between the two campaigns struck me full force. An Obama main event is thought through and planned to the nth degree, stage-managed and controlled, orchestrated as beautifully as anything Moliere ever created for the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. John McCain, however, cares nothing for presentation and the appearance of things; his lack of interest has filtered down through his campaign. Nowhere has this been more obvious than at the Dayton Rally. If the Obama Campaign had been staging a major debut in Dayton, home of the Wright Brothers, the advance planners would've chosen a symbolic location for the rally, like Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park or the Wright Brothers Aviation Center or -- even more spectacular -- the National Museum of the United States Air Force. But no, the McCain campaign, seemingly at random, chose the Ervin J. Nutter Center, a dim, dingy and rather depressing college arena no different from the other school gymnasiums, except in size, that have been home to the majority of campaign events for over a year. And John McCain was a fighter pilot, for heaven's sake! And Friday was McCain's birthday and Palin's wedding anniversary. But it's classic McCain to miss the mark when it comes to stagecraft.

On the other hand, the Dayton Rally, like other McCain events, through its pedestrian pacing and halting orchestration (the mikes didn't work half the time) achieved an authenticity that often eludes the Obama folk, despite (or because of) their greater effort. There's something artless and therefore charming about a battle of high school/college bands as the musical prelude to the introduction of an American vice presidential nominee. In retrospect, the Obama finale in Denver, with its pyrotechnic triumphalism may have been -- well, a little too Versailles, as well as a high bar for Democratic conventions to meet in the future. Neither John McCain nor Sarah Palin would ever spend that kind of money on show--a strength they can use to advantage.

The basketball arena was a fitting venue for Sarah Barracuda, who played herself back in the day. She was completely at ease and most engaging, although as a pair McCain and she were hilarious -- McCain not used to even five minutes of second-fiddledom, Palin nearly whacking her presumptive boss as she gestured with her arms. She immediately reminded me of Sally Field as The Flying Nun, and she wore her hair messily pulled back with the kind of plastic clip that my daughters keep telling me is out-of-style. But she kicks butt. A lot of older women, as they hear more about Sarah Palin I predict, are going to find it soul-satisfying that she has run the old boys of Alaska to ground.

Energy policy as the centerpiece of Election 2008 -- the "exotic" states of Hawaii and Alaska playing role -- who would've thought? And now Sarah Barracuda. It just keeps getting better and better out on the trail.