The Magazine

The Most Popular Governor

Alaska's Sarah Palin is the GOP's newest star.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By FRED BARNES
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"She's as Alaskan as you can get," says Dan Fagan, an Anchorage radio talk show host. "She's a hockey mom, she lives on a lake, she ice fishes, she snowmobiles, she hunts, she's an NRA member, she has a float plane, and her husband works for BP on the North Slope," Fagan says. Todd Palin, her high school sweetheart, is a three-time winner of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmobile race from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks. It's the world's longest snowmobile race.

Gov. Palin grew up in Wasilla, where as star of her high school basketball team she got the nickname "Sarah Barracuda" for her fierce competitiveness. She led her underdog team to the state basketball championship. Palin also won the Miss Wasilla beauty contest, in which she was named Miss Congeniality, and went on to compete in the Miss Alaska pageant.

At 32, she was elected mayor of Wasilla, a burgeoning bedroom community outside Anchorage. Though Alaskans tend to be ferociously anti-tax, she persuaded Wasilla voters to increase the local sales tax to pay for an indoor arena and convention center. The tax referendum won by 20 votes.

In 2002, Palin entered statewide politics, running for lieutenant governor. She finished a strong second in the Republican primary. That fall, she dutifully campaigned for Murkowski, who'd given up his Senate seat to run for governor. Afterwards, she turned down several job offers from Murkowski, finally accepting the oil and gas post. When she quit 11 months later, "that was her defining moment" in politics, says Fagan.

Her campaign for governor was bumpy. She missed enough campaign appearances to be tagged "No Show Sarah" by her opponents. She was criticized for being vague on issues. But she sold voters on the one product that mattered: herself.

Her Christian faith--Palin grew up attending nondenominational Bible churches--was a minor issue in the race. She told me her faith affects her politics this way: "I believe everything happens for a purpose. In my own personal life, if I dedicated back to my Creator what I'm trying to create for the good . . . everything will turn out fine." That same concept applies to her political career, she suggested.

The biggest issue in the campaign was the proposed natural gas pipeline from the North Slope that's crucial to the state's economy. Murkowski had made a deal with the three big oil companies--Exxon, BP, ConocoPhillips--which own the gas reserves to build the pipeline. But the legislature turned it down and Palin promised to create competition for the pipeline contract.

She made three other promises: to end corruption in state government, cut spending, and provide accountability. She's now redeeming those promises.

Palin describes herself as "pro-business and pro-development." She doesn't want the oil companies to sit on their energy reserves or environmental groups to block development of the state's resources. "I get frustrated with folks from outside Alaska who come up and say you shouldn't develop your resources," she says. Alaska needs to be self-sufficient, she says, instead of relying heavily on "federal dollars," as the state does today.

Her first major achievement as governor was lopsided passage by the legislature of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, which is designed to attract pipeline proposals this summer. The state is offering $500 million in incentives, but the developer must meet strict requirements. The oil companies have said they won't join the competition.

Palin's tough spending cuts drew criticism from Republican legislators whose pet projects were vetoed. But her popularity doesn't appear threatened. "It's not just that she's pretty and young," says Dittman. "She's really smart. And there's no guile. She says her favorite meal is moose stew or mooseburgers. It wouldn't shock people if that were true."

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.