A man fiddling with his wedding ring in the presence of another woman usually has something on his mind. At his introduction of Sarah Palin to the world on August 29, John McCain appeared a man possessed, playing with his ring, fastening his gaze on her breasts, her backside, his right fingers sliding up from that dratted gold band to the finger tip, pinching it as if to control the volcano stirring within him. “Boxed up,” the young McCain once said in a near-frenzy, describing to a confidante the state of his emotions under the Naval Academy’s discipline; the expression suited his performance that Friday in Dayton, when he finally regained composure by assuming the rigid posture of attention that the academy had taught so well.

Here was McCain, the angry old warrior, deploying sex as a central political weapon to recharge his potency, his party’s fortunes and the cultural oomph of the right. Not gender. The Republicans didn’t need just any woman to compete with Obama for the Wow factor, the Mmm factor, the stable, loving family factor. It is a calculated bonus that adherents can now speak loftily of making history, but for different reasons, drawing deep from the well of their identities, and not for the first time, both McCain and the right needed a sexual icon.

McCain’s first wife, Carol, airbrushed from his “compelling story” even when her three children trooped onstage to complete the convention’s family tableau, was a swimsuit model. Tall and slender when she saw John off to Vietnam, she was five inches shorter when he returned, broken grievously from a car accident, using a catheter and a wheelchair. “I don’t look so good myself,” he told her; privately he told friends the sight of her “appalled” him. He began looking for a more alluring replacement almost immediately. Carol says she has “no bitterness,” according to a story by Sharon Churcher in the London Daily Mail. John just “wanted to be 25 again.”

At 42 McNasty, as he was called in high school, took up with 24-year-old Cindy, a former junior rodeo queen, and, having boosted his image and his net worth via a marriage vow, soon reverted to the pattern of insults and macho egotism that has typified most of his life. He denigrated her education at USC as a tour through “the University of Spoiled Children.” For all but one of several miscarriages, he left her on her own. When she was popping ten to fifteen pills a day to mask her pain and “do everything he wanted,” he never noticed. In 1992, in a rage over her gentle teasing about his thinning hair, he exploded, “At least I don’t plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt,” a one-two punch hurled in front of three journalists and two aides but unreported until recently, by Cliff Schecter in The Real McCain. On the campaign trail in June he joked about “beating my wife” and took umbrage when others failed to grasp the simple good fun in the remark. In early August he said he’d encouraged Cindy to enter the Miss Buffalo Chip beauty pageant at the high-revving, flesh-swinging biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. It might have been a fine quip except that up on the stage with her daughter Meghan, staring out toward the throng where a sign urged Show Ur Tits 4 McCain, Cindy had the thin, fixed smile of endurance, not joy. Just before the Palin pick, Mrs. McCain was so brittle that a supporter’s energetic handshake put her in a cast. With the press and vast swaths of the country swooning over the Obama family, John needed a new queen.

Like King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, who asserted his mastery by decreeing male headship and then held a kind of beauty pageant to replace Vashti as queen, McCain found his new “partner and soulmate” in Miss Wasilla 1984. Even Cindy, who suddenly let her hair down in bed-head style, perhaps at last relieved of the burdens of wifely duties, calls it “a perfect match.” If only by association, John McCain may now fancy himself in the image of his deepest desire, top gun.

There may be a trap for him in the Book of Esther, which Sarah Palin, a biblical literalist, has used as a guide since becoming governor of Alaska, but more on that in a moment. For in her immediate ascendancy, Palin has fortified the Christian leadership that saw its first major organizing successes in the 1970s using sex as a weapon behind the banner of Miss Oklahoma 1958 (Anita Bryant) and her antigay crusade. With her husband, Todd, “quite a package,” Palin has fired up the Christian rank and file, who, also since the 1970s, have been on the losing end of the economy but have drawn a diverting strength from simultaneously attacking the heralds of sexual liberation (feminists and gays) and appropriating their message: holding out mind-blowing sex as God’s special gift to his truest heterosexual married believers; spawning a multimillion-dollar industry in Christian sex guides, aids, toys, soft-core porn (gussied up as novels or advice); and promoting a particular image of married womanhood as sex machine, urged, as Dagmar Herzog notes in an interesting new book, Sex in Crisis, to “keep their legs shaved and vaginas douched at all times. Just in case.”

For the party’s cynical power elite, who simply want to make gobs of money and have fun doing it, and never tire of a little culture war that helps them achieve both, Palin is the sex symbol they’ve been waiting for, better looking and more real than the ghastly gasbags Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. Rush Limbaugh, who began a push for Palin as VP in February, can hardly contain himself: “Sarah Palin: babies, guns, Jesus, hot damn!” he crowed. “We’re the ones that have the babe on the ticket!” Never before has a political woman been pictured so often in a T-shirt, armed–Rambette. Never before in a major political figure has the image of Mother been merged so readily with fantasies from porno. “You Go, GILF,” proclaim buttons on Republican chests, that is, Governor (or Grandmother) I’d Like to Fuck, a turn on the hungry married mom, or MILF, who has tapped the sex muscles and credit cards of porn lovers for years. While older working-class men talk of “Little Sarah” and her children, other men, including some on the left, have been rapturous in expressing their librarian fetish. “I was trying to be as frumpy as I could by wearing my hair on top of my head and these schoolmarm glasses,” Palin told Vogue, as if insensible to that venerable erotic figure, the tigress unleashed once the glasses are removed and the tresses fall. Why, Mrs. Palin, you’re, you’re b-b-beautifulExactly right, sonny, and no fool either.

In Sarah Palin the right has its perfect emblem: moral avatar and commodity, uniting the put-upon woman who gushes, “She’s just like me!” and the chest thumper who brays, “I’d do her, and her daughter” with those who have long exploited the fear and sorry machismo of both, with the help of another durable reactionary weapon. Now that it’s official, as McCain’s campaign manager said, that “this election is not about issues; this election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates,” McCain’s only live tag appears to be, Republicans Do It Better. Translation: small-town, gun-toting, rough-and-ready, all-American Sarah and Todd versus Barack and Michelle. White Power. (Or, close enough, White-ish.) Palin Power.

And there’s the rub for McCain. It looks like Palin’s party now, and whatever she does for his virility, she’s not the hockey mom, or the babe, or the third wife he can stomp on. If her acceptance speech was indicative, she can match the “sneering, condescending attitude” that former Republican Senator Bob Smith says is fundamental to McCain, but with a smile and a dagger’s turn. Her role model Esther doesn’t just win favor from the king and a reprieve for herself and her people; she enables her people to engage in bloody slaughter against the king’s other subjects, maneuvers for the public execution of his closest adviser and the man’s sons, sees her de facto father become the de facto king; in sum, sabotages and unmans Ahasuerus. Palin has been too cagey to identify exactly who her people are, but in playing off cronies and oilmen in Alaska and even Christians to get where she is, she does seem to have grasped the art, so vital to politics, of the exquisitely timed double cross.