John McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate stunned and divided Alaska political leaders on Friday. Supporters said she was a shrewd choice, but others argued Palin has no business being a heartbeat away from the presidency.
"I think it's very easy to underestimate Sarah Palin," said John Binkley, a former state legislator who lost to Palin in the 2006 Republican primary for governor.
Serving as small-town mayor of Wasilla was Palin's main experience before running for governor. Binkley said he underestimated her guts and campaign skill.
"I think there will probably a tendency for the Democrats to do the same thing," Binkley said. "They will assume that her lack of experience on the national stage will put her at a disadvantage, and I'm not certain that will matter."
The reaction wasn't so rosy elsewhere. State Senate President Lyda Green said she thought it was a joke when someone called her at 6 a.m. to give her the news.
"She's not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?" said Green, a Republican from Palin's hometown of Wasilla. "Look at what she's done to this state. What would she do to the nation?"
Green, who has feuded with Palin repeatedly over the past two years, brought up the big oil tax increase Palin pushed through last year. She also pointed to the award of a $500 million state subsidy to a Canadian firm to pursue a natural gas pipeline that is far from guaranteed.
Democrats helped give Palin her victories on oil taxes and the natural gas pipeline deal, over the opposition of many of Palin's fellow Republicans in the Legislature.
But Anchorage Democratic state Sen. Hollis French said it's a huge mistake by McCain and "reflects very, very badly on his judgment." French said Palin's experience running the state for less than two years hasn't prepared her for this.
Alaska Democratic Party chairwoman Patti Higgins, attending her party's national convention in Denver, said she was shocked to hear the news this morning.
"In this very competitive election for them to go pick somebody who is ... under a cloud of suspicion, who is under investigation for abuse of power. It just sounds like a pretty slow start to me," Higgins said.
The state Legislature is investigating whether Palin and her staff broke state law by pressuring the public safety department to fire a state trooper who was in a custody battle with her sister.
"We need a vice president who can step in if, God forbid, something happened to John McCain," Higgins said. "I don't think she's someone who is ready for that 3 a.m. phone call."
North Pole Republican Sen. Gene Therriault, who leads the minority caucus in the state Senate, said Palin has executive experience as governor and is ready for the job.
"It's a great opportunity for the state of Alaska," Therriault said. "For us to get our message out in what the state has to offer to the nation."
Therriault said Palin has proven to be a quick study who people respect for what she's done as governor, such as helping fix the ethics problems in Alaska politics.
"IT'S ABOUT THE PERSON"
Andrew Halcro, perhaps Palin's biggest political rival in Alaska, had a mixed reaction.
"When I first heard it, I thought, wow, that's great for Alaska. Then I thought, wait, what just happened? Because of course the lack of experience does jump out at you," Halcro said.
Palin is a skilled campaigner able to make people believe in her, said Halcro, who spent nine months on the campaign trail in 2006 running as an independent opposite Palin and former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, in the general election
"You really have to have a high level of respect for Gov. Palin in the sense that she has this real ability to connect with people. And suddenly people don't think about health care, they don't think about the economy, they don't think about whatever else, education," said Halcro, a self-described wonk. "It's not about the policy. It's about the person."
Palin always saw that, he said.
"It'll be interesting to see if that recipe works on the national stage," Halcro said.
The Republican Party of Alaska said it's 100 percent behind Palin -- despite the high profile battles she's had with state party chairman Randy Ruedrich.
"She brings her voice of new energy and change," party spokesman McHugh Pierre said.
Ruedrich was not giving interviews Friday. Palin's complaints against Ruedrich before she became governor led to the state fining him on ethics charges.
McCain noted approvingly in introducing Palin on Friday that "she's fought oil companies and party bosses."
Palin and Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens were at odds in the recent past as well.
The governor called on Stevens last year to explain why he was being investigated in the federal probe that has since led to his indictment on failure to disclose gifts
But they have appeared closer lately, and Stevens put out a statement praising Palin.
"Gov. Palin has proven herself as a bright, energetic leader for our state and will bring the same energy to the vice presidency. She will serve our country with distinction -- the first Alaskan and first woman on the Republican ticket. I share in the pride of all Alaskans," Stevens said.
"THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING"
The early morning news of McCain's pick sent jaws dropping throughout Alaska, with friends waking up friends with "Oh my God, have you heard?" phone calls.
State House Speaker John Harris, a Republican from Valdez, was astonished at the news. He didn't want to get into the issue of her qualifications.
"She's old enough," Harris said. "She's a U.S. citizen."
Former House Speaker Gail Phillips, a Republican political leader who has clashed with Palin in the past, was shocked when she heard the news Friday morning with her husband, Walt.
"I said to Walt, 'This can't be happening, because his advance team didn't come to Alaska to check her out," Phillips said.
Phillips has been active in the Ted Stevens re-election steering committee and remains in close touch with Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other party leaders, and she said nobody had heard anything about McCain's people doing research on his prospective running mate.
"We're not a very big state. People I talk to would have heard something."
Few wanted to talk about anything else on talk radio Friday. Conservative host Rick Rydell said there are some benefits to the state, but it's a gamble for McCain to pick an unknown with what he considered "questionable vetting."
"It seems almost like a Hail Mary pass at the end of a football game," Rydell said in an interview after his show Friday.
Rydell said McCain has destroyed his argument about Barack Obama's lack of experience.
But another local talk radio host, Eddie Burke, enthused on the air that he was "overwhelmingly excited" by the selection. "Alaskans will now have a chance to have somebody talking about resources, our undeveloped resources," Burke said.
Burke said McCain's vice presidential pick has already captured the nation's attention. That is what people are talking about, he said -- not Barack Obama's acceptance speech.
PARNELL, COLBERG AFFECTED
Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg, a Palin appointee, said McCain's announcement left him with "a mixed set of emotions, kind of an odd sense of Alaska nationalism or pride."
"This is like watching a moon landing or something. It's just something you don't expect to see very often. It's wonderful." He continued: "It was an emotional thing to see the governor walk out with her family, and I say, 'Wow, I work for her.' "
Palin likely will be spending much time campaigning outside of Alaska. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell also is preoccupied with campaigning for Alaska's lone U.S. House seat. The outcome of his GOP primary race with Rep. Don Young is up in the air until absentee and questioned ballots are counted in September. As of Friday, Young was up by 151 votes.
Colberg would become governor if Palin and Parnell both are elected and leave their current positions. Parnell said he found at 6:40 a.m. Friday about McCain's pick, reacting with surprise and letting out a "whoop of happiness."
Daily News reporters Lisa Demer, Tom Kizzia and Elizabeth Bluemink contributed to this story.Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.