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.
"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."
Growing personal disdain along with disagreements over the new taxes on oil companies and the process for moving the pipeline forward have left Green convinced that Palin is bad news for Alaska and potentially bad news for America. "People see her, and they see the picture they want to see, but it's not all paradise," she said of Palin.
Green supports the ethics investigation into whether Palin abused power when she fired Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. She and other critics of the governor believe Monegan was removed because he resisted pressure from the governor's office to fire state trooper Mike Wooten, who Palin said had threatened to kill Palin's father after a nasty divorce from her sister. Palin denies any abuse of power in the case.
That claim of innocence and Palin's record of accomplishment were good enough for McCain, who added her to the GOP presidential ticket-a decision that propelled her to the forefront of the Republican National Convention for a speech that dropped jaws around the world.
Where did this woman come from?
The short answer: Alaska. Palin's family moved to "The Last Frontier" when she was just 3 months old. Moose hunting and ice fishing became a way of life. Her father, Chuck Heath, rose to celebrity status in Wasilla and was a favorite substitute teacher among the youth. His collections of animal bones and carcasses are legendary.
But Mr. Heath, as he is widely known among the residents who once attended his elementary-school classes, did not arrive in Alaska as a man of faith. His wife Sally took charge of raising Sarah and her three siblings in church, hauling them off to an Assemblies of God congregation every Sunday. Palin was baptized as a preteen and grew in her faith throughout junior high and high school.
Longtime friend Adele Morgan, who dated Palin's brother Chuck Jr. for three years as a teenager, recalls acting as something of a spiritual mentor to Palin. Morgan has since gone on to a career as a Christian singer and songwriter but still calls Wasilla home and attends Wasilla Bible Church, where the Palin family has worshipped for more than a decade. Larry Kroon, pastor of the non-denominational congregation, says he holds Palin and her family in high regard and has "high respect for their faith and their integrity."
Widespread confusion over Palin's church affiliation has filled the pages of national media in recent days, largely due to the family's shifting attendance. "Sarah's been a church hopper in the last political years of her life, because she's got friends everywhere and likes to be supportive, and they like it when she comes to their church," Morgan explained. "But she's been going to our church the most, and when she was mayor she came to our church."
The Palins also occasionally attend The Church on the Rock, an independent charismatic congregation in Wasilla that is home church to Palin's childhood pastor Paul Riley. When at the capital in Juneau, they sometimes attend Juneau Christian Center, also a church with charismatic roots.
Last month, the Palin family dedicated their infant son Trig at Wasilla Bible Church. State Rep. Wes Keller, a family friend, prayed over the Palins' fifth child, who was born with Down syndrome in April.
Keller says he is convinced that Palin's faith is no political act. While being sworn into office last year, he recalls Palin whispering into his ear to gather the elders of Wasilla Bible Church to pray for him and her and their respective jobs. "In that private meeting, she expressly stated her faith in the leading and lordship of Jesus Christ. I can vouch that she is the real item."
Morgan affirms that assessment: "Her faith is very much a part of who she is, and I know that she's a Christian. She will definitely stand up for what she believes in to anyone as far as the pro-life issues. And I've been very proud of her on that."
In many ways, Palin's faith and political philosophy developed in concert. Her small-government commitment, perhaps even libertarian streak, stems from belief in personal responsibility. Her pro-life views flow from a conviction that all of humanity possesses dignity and equal value no matter how small or frail. She has expressed support for teaching alternative theories of origins alongside Darwinism in public-school classrooms, especially theories that allow for a creator.
Such positions endear her to conservatives in Alaska and abroad. Her story endears her to many more.
A tomboy throughout her life, Palin led the Wasilla High basketball team to a state championship with enough determination to earn the nickname "Sarah Barracuda." Juxtaposed to that tough-girl image, she took home top honors in the Wasilla beauty pageant and went on to a runner-up finish behind Miss Alaska.
Curtis Menard, mayor of the Mat-Su borough in which Wasilla is located and a longtime friend of Palin's family, recalls that sports came natural to the athletic teenager. But beauty pageants? That took some convincing. "Sarah was pretty cool on the idea at the beginning," he said. Menard's wife Linda talked Palin into competing as a way to learn about poise and quick thinking under the scrutiny of a public interview-and a way to earn scholarships for college.
"She really bloomed," Morgan recalled. "She used to always wear the black horn-rimmed glasses, and she got braces. You know how it is when in junior high you think some girl is really ugly and then when you get to high school, you go, 'Whoa!' That's kind of the way she was."
Todd Palin experienced enough "Whoa!" to wait for his high-school sweetheart to return from college in Idaho. The couple eloped soon after, Palin never being one for grand shows of sentimentality.
Children followed: first Track, then Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trig. The oldest enlisted in the army last year and is slated for deployment to Iraq this month.
The picture of the Palin family standing on stage together at the Republican National Convention amounted to political gold. But the price for their mother's success, as is the case with all public parents, has been high. The teen pregnancy of 17-year-old daughter Bristol dominated national headlines in the wake of Palin's selection to join the McCain ticket. And considerable criticism, both from concerned fellow moms and hostile political opponents, has battered the family with questions as to whether Palin should be home with her infant son rather than seeking the nation's second-highest office (see sidebar).
Somehow, Palin appears immune to such scrutiny, the intense pushback she's faced throughout her career apparently having inoculated her from personal attacks. After her strong Sept. 3 speech to the RNC, all of Alaska cheered.
Nowhere did that applause reach greater fervor than at Tailgaters Bar and Grill in Wasilla. There, dozens of the closest members of Palin's extended Alaska family gathered to holler their approval between mouthfuls of American pub food and cold beer.
Martin Buser, a four-time winner of Alaska's famed Iditarod sled race, was among the frenzied throng. A close friend of Todd Palin, who holds four titles in Alaska's Iron Dog snowmobile race, Buser believes that Sarah Palin fulfills what the founders of the country had in mind for public servants-namely, "normal, hard-working, everyday citizens."
"If you asked all of the candidates how much a gallon of milk would cost or a gallon of gas, Sarah Palin certainly could tell you, because she's an everyday normal person," Buser said.
That's a sentiment shared among everyday normal folks throughout Wasilla. Outside the local Super Wal-Mart, most customers were happy to stop and talk about Sarah on a recent afternoon. Democratic retiree Rodney Webster, 74, couldn't help but lavish praise on his former mayor despite any political disagreements: "The town grew with her. And she grew with the town," he said.
Palin has since outgrown the town-both Wasilla and Alaska.
(Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Mike Wooten is the state trooper who was married to Gov. Palin's sister.)
Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani brought a little fire for his introduction of Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention Sept. 3. Giuliani castigated critics of the GOP's vice presidential nominee who wondered whether a mom of five, including an infant with Down syndrome and a pregnant unwed teen, is shirking her motherly duties in seeking high-profile political office: "How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to spend with her children and be vice president? How dare they do that? When do they ever ask a man that question? When?"
The force of Giuliani's charge of hypocrisy rests in part on an assumption that there is no difference between men and women. The fact that people are asking it is not evidence of sexism, but rather an indication that most people inherently recognize gender distinctions no matter how fervently they insist otherwise, and that women have particular roles in nurturing young children.
Of course, the question has little to do with how well Palin might govern. And using a presidential campaign to raise it in earnest begs other questions, like whether her critics would hold the millions of working moms throughout the country-many also in taxing, time--consuming jobs-to the same standard of scrutiny.
For Christians, the issue of how much a mom should work while raising young children is best handled up close, among spouses and churches. But to the matter of whether men and women are identically made, no biblical controversy exists. They are different, and consequently, the questions they field will be.