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Sarah surge

Campaign 2008 | Months and months into our long presidential campaign, a small-town hockey mom turns establishment politics on its head. Those who know her best say Americans have only seen the beginning of Alaskan toughness

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

WASILLA, Alaska-Alaska just might be America's biggest small town-and its governor America's biggest small-town girl. Sarah Palin's rapid rise to political stardom has set the Land of the Midnight Sun abuzz. She is the conversation of grocery store checkout lines, the featured topic of most every radio program, and a fixture on the flat-screen televisions of neighborhood sports bars, now tuned to round-the-clock cable news.

More than a mere expression of state pride, this fascination is personal, familial even. That's because in the massive small town that is Alaska, everybody knows Sarah.

On a recent Thursday morning, local residents of tiny Talkeetna, the base camp for Mount McKinley and home to the annual Moose Dropping Festival, duck inside the Latitude 62 restaurant for cheese-covered eggs and black coffee. Mary Farina, 53, sits at the bar sipping a hot drink and quoting favorite lines from the governor's speech at the Republican convention the night before. Palin's reference to hockey moms resonated especially, given that Farina often shared a bleacher with Alaska's first mom when their sons played on the same team a few seasons back.

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"There are a lot of people that can say they know her and have met her, which is pretty unusual. She's just totally Alaskan," says Farina, who is saddened at the prospect of losing Palin to national politics, yet excited about the reforms she could bring to Washington: "She might just sell Air Force One on eBay."

Palin got a lot of laughs for saying she put the governor's private jet on eBay upon reaching state office. It was the kind of populist move that endeared her to constituents but irked some of the GOP establishment. Even though Palin did list it on eBay, ultimately the $2.7 million jet bought by Gov. Frank Murkowski sold for $2.1 million through a broker. Bucking the status quo never bothered Palin. She built her career out of it-a record that helps explain why John "Maverick" McCain chose her as his running mate.

Palin's own maverick streak stretches back to her days on the city council in Wasilla, her small hometown 50 miles north of Anchorage that has undergone explosive growth in recent years to reach a population of about 7,000. Back in the mid-1990s, Palin injected conservative ideology and national political issues into her local campaigns, drawing partisan support for nonpartisan offices. Members of the Wasilla political community bristled.

After winning election as Wasilla mayor in 1996, Palin fired police chief Irl Stambaugh and nearly canned city librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, both of whom had supported the campaign of incumbent mayor John Stein. Palin only rescinded her announced termination of Emmons after the librarian offered assurances of support for the new mayor.

That confrontational approach infuriated some Wasilla residents but streamlined advancement for the small town. Republican leaders in the state noticed. After Palin's 2002 bid for lieutenant governor fell short, then-Gov. Murkowski appointed her to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

She quit two years later in protest over ethics violations and promptly filed complaints against state Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich and former Alaska Attorney General Gregg Renkes. Both resigned. Palin had found a calling.

The mantle of ethics reformer proved a perfect fit, providing outlets both for Palin's aggressive, confrontational style and her Christian-rooted moral ideals. She snatched her party's gubernatorial nomination away from the incumbent Murkowski in 2006 on a platform to clean up government, and went on to thrash popular Democrat Tony Knowles in the general election.

Upon swearing in, Palin dismissed the governor's chef, sold the governor's plane, and declined car service to and from work. Over the next 20 months, a flurry of activity erupted from the state capital: Palin booted 35 late-hour appointments made by her predecessor. She raised the price on oil companies for extracting Alaska's resources and passed the profits on to the citizens in the form of $1,200 checks. She reversed her initial support for Ketchikan's Gravina Island Bridge and shut down construction on the project that became known as the "Bridge to Nowhere." She used her veto power to cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state construction budget. And, perhaps most notably, she pushed through a license for TransCanada Pipelines to construct a natural gas pipeline connecting Alaska's North Slope with the lower 48 states, a forward-looking project for national energy needs that had stalled in bureaucracy for the past 30 years.

That kind of reform invigorated Alaskans, and Palin's approval ratings soared above 80 percent. But the rash style and sharp tongue behind the change incensed some former political allies in the state legislature. Senate president Lyda Green, a Republican, came to view Palin as power hungry and abusive. She recalls one particularly pejorative barb when the new governor told the press, "I guess they need an adult in the legislature."

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