ANCHORAGE - Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will step onto the national stage tonight for the biggest debate of her life after a shaky couple of weeks that have called into question her familiarity with vital issues in the world outside Alaska.
She’s already staged one big comeback: her triumphantly received convention speech, which followed days of awkward family revelations and public second-guessing of John McCain’s choice of running mate.
This week, no shortage of helpful suggestions have streamed Palin's way for staging a second comeback. Many supporters say they want her freed from campaign handlers, restoring what they see as the rip-snorting reformer who won the Alaska governor’s race.
But even on her home turf, Palin was not always on the mark when it came to policy details. A review of Palin’s debate performances from the 2006 campaign for governor show a candidate who occasionally struggled for words and facts – though never lacking for poise and confidence.
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In a whirlwind series of candidate forums and Chamber of Commerce luncheons, Palin sometimes found herself short on specifics as she checked her index cards and scurried through short-winded responses on topics she didn’t know well. In the end, though, such details didn’t seem to matter, as Palin was able to shine on other matters, draw sharp contrasts to her opponents, and relate to the lives and personal concerns of voters.
"She had a unique ability to connect with her audience, but she used slogans over substance," said one of her opponents, former Gov. Tony Knowles, who was frustrated in his effort to gain ground by challenging her readiness for office. "It seemed she knew or cared little about policy."
As a debater two years ago, Palin took a tough line on oil and gas issues. But she could seem uninformed about state programs in areas such as health, education and veterans’ affairs, grasping at vague "constitutional mandates" and roll-up-your-sleeves optimism in lieu of policy prescriptions. She would grow tetchy when she felt under attack, particularly over social issues.
Yet she seemed to learn from the debates themselves and grew more self-assured as the campaign progressed.
"Her looks, easy manner and unshakable ability to stay on message seemed so effortless one wondered if she had been coached by media experts or simply born for television," Michael Carey, a former Daily News editor involved in three of the debates, wrote later in an essay on the election.
It was clearly the latter – she was a natural, said former state Sen. John Binkley, who ran against her in the Republican primary that year and watched her performance improve.
"It was amazing to me, she carried that campaign herself, while I had staff and money and the apparatus of an excellent campaign," Binkley said.
Binkley recalled one Kenai event where he flew down from Anchorage and was met with a car. Palin had gotten up early that morning in Wasilla, drove to Kenai with two daughters, and changed in a restaurant bathroom berfore the debate.
At the time, Binkley said, he thought he was winning the debates by being better informed. He learned a lesson, he said.
"It wasn’t about the issues or depth of knowledge of issues. I think she understands you can get smart people around you," Binkley said. "I might have focused too much on issues, and she focused on how people felt about the issues."
Helped by her reputation as an ethics whistleblower and the unpopularity of Republican incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski, Palin first had to prove she had the seriousness to be governor herself. One place she managed this was in a primary debate, when she stopped cold an argument between Murkowski and Binkley by saying Alaskans deserved better than such bickering.
By her final debates, which were televised statewide, she had developed a foxy way of boxing out her better-informed opponents – portraying independent Andrew Halcro as a dour number-cruncher and Democrat Knowles as an old-line politician whose expertise on subsistence and oil issues was tied to "failed policies of the past."
"Palin’s message on important public policy issues never evolved – because it didn’t have to," Halcro wrote later in a newspaper column. "Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy."
Throughout the 2006 campaign, Palin promotedherself as the fresh face and candidate of change on the political scene. Knowledge of how things worked in the past became less relevant, even a liability. It’s the pitch that worked for her as a 32-year-old running for Wasilla mayor a decade earlier. And the same line cropped up this week when Palin, speaking with CBS’s Katie Couric, drew a contrast to Sen. Joe Biden’s seniority and experience.
"I’m the new energy, the new face, the new ideas," Palin told the television anchor.
Expressing how that new energy would be applied to the problems facing Alaska sometimes confounded Paln as a candidate for governor.
On education, for example, Knowles and Halcro produced multi-point white papers on school reform in time for a September education debate. Palin’s staff distributed a two-page letter from the candidate, under the campaign’s logo, gushing about her father, a science teacher.
In early October, at a debate on health care at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Halcro challenged Palin to explain how she would pay for new health programs and derided her answer as "political gibberish."
The answer he criticized: "Well, the point there Andrew is that these are critical and again, it’s a matter of prioritizing. And it’s a matter of government understanding its proper role. Proper role of government is providing the tools that those in the private sector aren’t able to gather themselves, and critical health care will be a priority. I will cover that as your governor, I will make sure that we are fulfilling our constitutional, mandated provisions there, that are laid out for us. Again, education, basic solid infrastructure, public safety -- in public safety is health care, so it’s a matter of priorities."Around the same time, Palin was coming under fire from her opponents for "ducking" some candidate forums to avoid looking bad. Her campaign cited scheduling conflicts, as when she missed a meeting with Native corporation executives. But a letter emerged later from Palin issues coordinator John Bitney in which he said the campaign cancelled when it discovered Palin would be asked about tribes and state and federal Indian law, areas she knew little about.
Some prominent business-minded Republicans came out for Knowles. They said they were concerned by Palin’s comments about pushing a natural gas pipeline without oil industry support, but Ginsburg, the former Knowles spokesman, thought it was more than that.
"This is going to sound elitist, but people who understood the connection between policy nuance and what’s good for the state, many of those people supported Knowles or Halcro," she said.
But Palin showed a keen sense of finding a soft spot in her audience. Speaking at a statewide chiropractors convention, Palin followed her opponents with vague replies to the group’s complicated legal and Medicaid questions. But then she introduced her husband, Todd, standing in back of the room, mentioned his success in the Iron Dog snowmachine race – and then thought to tell them that Todd wouldn’t be standing there today after those pounding races without the help of his chiropractor. The room erupted in happy applause for the first time that day.
She could turn frosty when she felt victimized. She seemed almost to relish the "Valley Trash" insult that had been levelled on her home district, several times implying that her opponents shared that attitude. In a debate the final week on statewide television, Palin answered a series of questions on abortion, gay rights and stem cell research directly if tersely, adding, "It’s interesting that so many questions do revolve around that centeredness that I have."
The same debate featured questions about recent bills passed by the Legislature that candidates approved or disapproved. Knowles and Halcro named specific bills, while Palin referred only to Murkowski policies and ignored protests that she wasn’t answering the question.
One week later, Palin was elected governor. She drew 48 percent of the vote in the three-way race. It was only later, after federal corruption trials, legislative victories on oil taxes and her gasline plan, and payouts from a state budget swollen with oil revenues, that Palin’s popularity soared to the now-legendary 80-percent range.
Knowles thinks the debate approach she used to become governor won’t help her now. No more fresh face, he said — the world is poised to see if she’s more knowledgeable than she’s appeared so far.
"Also, she’s a far different candidate," Knowles said. "That was a very partisan speech she gave (at the convention), to energize the conservative base. You didn’t hear anything like that from her in the governor’s race."
Binkley, on the other hand, thinks the past may be key – that the national election will now hinge in part on how voters in the political center feel about Palin as a person, not her policy expertise.
"What Sarah needs to do is be herself," Binkley said. "I hope the McCain campaign isn’t trying to make her be someone else."
Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins contributed to this story.