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Palin’s a Risky Pick, but Could Yield Big Dividends

The post-Palin coverage by many in the media has been a melange of confusion, cynicism, doubt and derision, even going so far as to characterize Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential choice as one of “desperation.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Choosing to stay with his comrades in a North Vietnam prison and enduring five and a half years of torture, starvation and solitary confinement, the Arizona Republican understands desperate circumstances better than most. Selecting a running mate is a big decision but an act of “desperation” in McCain’s biography of life experiences? Not hardly.

McCain has always understood the concept of high stakes, whether it was as a guest in the Hanoi Hilton or backing a troop surge in Iraq when the president and Defense secretary of his own party strongly opposed him. In the case of the surge, he was proved right.

It’s understandable that the media didn’t know what to make of McCain’s surprise choice of Sarah Palin, the little-known governor of Alaska. Many Republicans, myself included, didn’t know much about Palin either. So, that first round of press calls and appearances left reporters with little to chew on.

Now, we’ve had a few days to digest McCain’s selection and see Palin in action. Clearly, she faces some tough hurdles in the next few weeks, convincing not only the media but voters that she has the right stuff to sit a heartbeat away from the presidency.

But her maiden speech electrified a cheering crowd of thousands in Dayton, Ohio, and likely did the same with many more watching it at home. Her performance was near-perfect, stumble-free and personable as she hit all the right political and biographical notes.

Now that we’ve had a chance to watch a little bit of her performance on the stump and learn more about this unusual politician’s background and record, McCain’s decision still seems risky but also has the potential to reap big benefits for the campaign. Palin’s greatest strength is likely to be her firsthand knowledge and experience in the energy arena.

With energy the key component of the economic debate this year, her years taking on Big Oil while advocating a proactive, pro-drilling posture makes her the energy expert in the race. Her credibility on energy issues gives McCain the opportunity to continue the progress he’s already made on the economic issue with his call for more domestic drilling.

None of the other “big three” on the two tickets can claim her expertise on what is not only an economic issue but a national security issue, and apparently, she knows her stuff.

On “Meet the Press,” CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, who interviewed Palin last week before her selection, told Tom Brokaw she was impressed with Palin’s knowledge on energy, saying, “She came across so strong with regard to economic matters as they relate to energy and as they relate to overall economic growth, I think it was a very savvy pick actually.”

She also adds strength to the ticket as a reformer. Until now, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), with his call for change, has been able to appropriate the mantle of reformer that has characterized most of McCain’s Congressional career. While Washington insiders understand that McCain has earned his maverick label over two decades of taking issue with party leaders and presidents, many voters may not.

Palin’s selection puts the reform issue back in play by letting McCain assert that his ticket, not Obama’s, represents a pair of real reformers. We know McCain’s record and we’re learning about her battles with powerful Republicans from Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) to former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski. This will provide a marked contrast with Obama, who has been unable to cite a single example in which he took on the political leadership of his party on any serious issue.

Palin can also claim her executive experience as a plus. While she has been in the governor’s office a relatively short time, McCain can point to her “reform” record in the energy area, taxes, education, ethics, and in her decision early on to do away with many of the trappings of office.

Finally, Palin gives McCain and Republicans an opportunity to rebuild the winning Republican coalition that fractured in 2006 by appealing to three key elements of that coalition: married women with children, independent women and blue-collar voters. She may pick up a few disgruntled Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) voters, but her real strength is more likely to lie with these three groups, which were a significant contributing factor in the Republican loss of the House and Senate two years ago.

She will also be extraordinarily popular with the Republican base. We’ve seen evidence of this already as the more conservative elements of the party have praised the selection of Palin. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Palin’s selection is evidence that it is possible to choose a running mate capable of appealing to both the base and swing voters.

Sarah Palin has her work cut out for her in the next 60 or so days — getting through the convention, her first media interviews and the vice presidential debate to name three. She cleared her first hurdle Friday with room to spare.

David Winston is president of the Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.