AL GRILLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
On day one of the Republican National Convention, NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell breathlessly reported from the floor of the session that “there are Republican lawyers right now up in Alaska doing a deeper vet on Sarah Palin.” Mitchell was both right and wrong. A “jump team” of top lawyers and communications operatives had indeed decamped to Anchorage. But the dozen McCain campaign fixers–led by a veteran of the Bush v. Gore Florida recount fight of 2000–did not head north to perform a post-selection vetting of vice presidential pick Palin. The hired guns were on the Last Frontier to manage a mess: the prospect that the state-sanctioned investigation of an abuse-of-power scandal involving Palin would destroy the governor’s credibility as a reformer–and with it the argument that their new No. 2’s relative inexperience was mitigated by her able leadership.
Palin had other issues–a record of demanding earmarks while claiming to reject them, extreme religious views, an underutilized passport and a Cheneyesque penchant for official secrecy and executive excess that put the lie to her presumed commitment to openness. But it was the Troopergate scandal that really had the McCain camp spooked. With its intimations that the governor dismissed Alaska’s top cop because he refused to fire Palin’s former brother-in-law–a state trooper with whom she and her husband were feuding–the controversy threatened Palin’s carefully manufactured image. Weeks before she joined the ticket, her ethics counselor, Wevley Shea, a former US Attorney for Alaska, had warned her with regard to Troopergate that “the situation is now grave.” Despite statements to the contrary, the decision by top McCain campaign adviser Steve Schmidt to send a strike force, and the relentless focus on Troopergate by its members, like former Justice Department prosecutor Ed O’Callaghan, leaves no doubt that the McCain camp shared Shea’s assessment.
“The fight is over how [Palin] is going to be defined in the eyes of the American public,” admitted former McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson. “All the information about her has not been introduced, and once that information comes to light people are going to draw conclusions about her, and the campaigns are fighting to shape the conclusions.”
The most politically volatile conclusion–an election-season determination that Palin had abused her authority in a manner that could lead to official sanctions, perhaps even impeachment–was not something the McCain camp was willing to leave to chance. Top aides parachuted into Anchorage on a two-tier mission. On the ground in Alaska, they initiated a series of stalling schemes designed to prevent a damaging report from being released before the November 4 election. At the same time, McCain acolytes, led by former New York mayor and presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, appeared on national television to spin the story that the bipartisan inquiry was a partisan witch hunt. In so doing, McCain’s aides provided vivid illustration of precisely what can happen when a determined presidential campaign is willing to do anything to maintain the carefully crafted image of a running mate who has become essential to its electoral prospects.