ST. PAUL — Barack Obama prevailed in the February 5 Democratic presidential caucuses in Alaska by one of the largest margins he achieved in any of the many state battles that led to his nomination last week.
And, despite the fact that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has been selected by presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain as his running-mate, the Obama campaign plans to keep running hard in the state — just as it is in McCain’s home-state of Arizona.
That’s a reflection both of Obama’s proven appeal in Alaska and of deep concerns about the wisdom of putting a controversial and inexperienced governor one heartbeat away from the presidency.
Let’s begin with the comparison of how Obama and McCain did in their respective caucus contests earlier this year.
On the Democratic side, Obama secured 74 percent of the vote to just 25 percent for Hillary Clinton.
On the Republican side, John McCain ran fourth in the Republican caucuses the same day. Mitt Romney took first place with 44 percent, Mike Huckabee was in second with 22 percent and Ron Paul took third with 17 percent. McCain barely secured the 15 percent support needed to accumulate delegates.
Since February, Obama activists have been on the ground in the state — organizing hard and talking up the prospect that Alaska could back Democrat for president for the first time in decades.
It is certainly reasonable to imagine that McCain has improved his prospects by naming the personally-popular Palin as his running mate.
But the Obama camp is not giving up on Alaska. And rightly so. Though the state has just three electoral votes, there are great symbolic and practical arguments for continuing to campaign there.
Obama backers were busy registering young voters in communities across the state this weekend, as part of a national drive.
Obama’s campaign has, by every evidence, been working the state harder than the McCain’s camp for months. With offices open or set to open in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and other communities, the campaign has had 40 paid staffer in the state this summer.
The Democrat’s supporters recently launched an “Alaska Bush Field campaign for Obama” — which aims to run up the candidate’s votes in remote villages accessible only by air or watercraft.
The August 21 launch took place in Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States and dozens of people showed up for the event at a local roller rink.
Campaign staffers are flying into the state’s most remote communities with materials specially produced for the Democrat, including “Alaska Native Peoples for Obama” posters that are being displayed in communities that have rarely if ever been visited by a presidential campaign before.
Against a Republican ticket that includes a popular governor of a state that has a lot of pride on the line, it will be tough for Obama to become the first Democratic presidential nominee to win Alaska since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
But the Obama campaign says it will keep campaigning in Alaska.
That may turn out to be a wise decision, as Alaskans seem to be dubious about whether their governor is ready to be vice president — let alone president.
The Republican president of the Alaska State Senate, Lyda Green said of Palin: “She’s not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?”
Green, who represents Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, worried aloud about Palin’s fiscal irresponsibility, saying: “Look at what she’s done to this state. What would she do to the nation?”
One of the state’s largest newspapers, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, editorialized that:
Sen. John McCain’s selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate was a stunning decision that should make Alaskans proud, even while we wonder about the actual merits of the choice….
Alaskans and Americans must ask, though, whether she should become vice president and, more importantly, be placed first in line to become president.
In fact, as the governor herself acknowledged in her acceptance speech, she never set out to be involved in public affairs. She has never publicly demonstrated the kind of interest, much less expertise, in federal issues and foreign affairs that should mark a candidate for the second-highest office in the land. Republicans rightfully have criticized the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, for his lack of experience, but Palin is a neophyte in comparison; how will Republicans reconcile the criticism of Obama with the obligatory cheering for Palin?
Most people would acknowledge that, regardless of her charm and good intentions, Palin is not ready for the top job. McCain seems to have put his political interests ahead of the nation’s when he created the possibility that she might fill it.
Even conservative Alaskans like talk-radio host Rick Rydell suggested that McCain’s choice must have involved “questionable vetting” of the controversial and inexperienced governor.
“It seems almost like a Hail Mary pass at the end of a football game,” Rydell said of McCain’s pick.
But State Representative Mike Doogan, an Anchorage Democrat, put it best when he wrote:
Sure, I suppose that many Alaskans are feeling a surge of pride that someone from our state has gotten a spot on the big stage. And most Alaskans like Palin. I know I do.
But let’s be honest here. Her resume is as thin as the meat in a vending machine sandwich. I’m thinking being mayor of Wasilla doesn’t qualify her. And she’s less than two years into her first term as governor. Except for her high-profile gas pipeline legislation — which I like a lot — she doesn’t have much to show. Oil taxes? Most of that work was done by the legislature. Ethics? Ditto. And her role in killing the much-touted Bridge to Nowhere? Talk about coming in after the battle is over and bayoneting the wounded.
And there’s a growing sense that the government isn’t running all that well, that all that’s keeping the wheels from coming off is that 25,000 state employees show up for work every day.
The long and short of it is this: We’re not sure she’s a competent governor of Alaska. And yet McCain, who is no spring chicken, has decided she’s the best choice to replace him as president if he should win and then fall afoul of the Grim Reaper.
The Obama campaign is going to keep fighting for Alaska because Obama and his aides believe something that McCain and his aides do not: That Alaskans have enough self-respect, not to mention patriotism, to recognize that political candidates and parties ought not play games with the vice presidency and presidency — and, by extension, with the fate of the republic.